The Sandiganbayan threw out the graft complaint filed against former National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Director General Romulo Neri in 2010 in connection with the botched $329-million national broadband network (NBN) deal for lack of evidence.
“We find the evidence of the prosecution insufficient to sustain the charges or justify a verdict of guilt. The prosecution failed to discharge the burden of proving that accused Neri violated Section 3(h) of R.A. 3019 by proof beyond reasonable doubt for its failure to satisfactorily establish that accused had financial or pecuniary interest, directly or indirectly, in the subject NBN-ZTE deal,” the court’s special division said in a 40-page decision promulgated on September 9.
The court ordered the return of the bail bond that Neri posted and lifted the hold departure order it issued against him.
The prosecution had claimed that Neri had financial or pecuniary interest in the deal and that he had lunch and played golf with ZTE officials and representatives and by supposedly sending Noel “Jun” Lozada Jr. to meet former Commission on Elections chief Benjamin Abalos and businessman Jose De Venecia 3rd, the president of Amsterdam Holdings, Inc., a proponent of the NBN project.
But the court said that while there was a lunch meeting in 2006 among “the Abalos Group,” some ZTE officials, and Lozada which Neri attended, the latter was just being consulted on how to go about the NBN project.
The court said “there was no showing that Neri made statements or performed any other act to indicate financial or pecuniary interest on his part. It is noteworthy that matters concerning commissions and/or any form of financial gain accruing to him were never tackled in that meeting.”
It added that Neri’s instruction that communications regarding the project be coursed through Lozada was understandable because the latter’s advice as a telecommunications expert could help him to properly respond to questions on the project and to form an opinion.
These communications, the court said, “could logically refer only to those related to NEDA’s role in the project and could not be read as extending to how accused could have financial gain.”
“There is also no indication of any discussion regarding commissions or that Neri ever took advantage of the occasion to advance or even just to suggest his pecuniary interest in the subject NBN deal,” the court added.
Lozada’s recollection of Abalos allegedly telling him about giving Neri P200 million once the NEDA’s approval of the deal was secured was also dismissed by the court for being hearsay.
Associate Justice Roland Jurado, who leads the court’s Fifth Division, penned the ruling which was concurred in by Associate Justices Alexander Gesmundo and Ma. Theresa Dolores Gomez-Estoesta. REINA TOLENTINO