Actually, the nearly PHP1 million peso dinner bothers me JUST slightly less than the fact that GMA’s party all sat down to the meal (most probably) after the news that President Corazon Aquino had passed away had shocked the nation and already reverberated to Filipinos around the globe.
Yes, I have personally indulged in some of life’s luxuries over the years. I will admit to copper fish pans, a weekend home, holiday travel, good food and wine… But I worked hard, earned my money in private employment, and saved and invested wisely. BUT I AM NOT, AND NEVER WANT TO BE AN ELECTED PUBLIC OFFICIAL. In this reported case, these are public officials in a nation where some 95% of ALL OF THE FAMILIES IN THE ENTIRE ARCHIPELAGO EARN LESS THAN PHP1 MILLION PER YEAR! And yes, I think THAT distinction of being public officials and leaders of a country with so much poverty DOES make a world of difference. If a public official cannot live simply, then they should at least make every effort not to do anything to betray or insult their constituents’ intelligence and sensibilities. They made the CHOICE to run for public office. To SERVE their constituents. YES, they should have a HIGHER STANDARD to uphold. What ever happened to delicadeza? Appearances? Common sense?
The New York Post, on the infamous gossipy page 6, published this tidbit on GMA and party enjoying a dinner at Le Cirque, in New York, with a total bill of roughly $20,000 or PHP960,000. But more than just a gossip item, it seems that Ellen Tordesillas, a journalist, has confirmed that the dinner did occur, and that Press Secretary Cerge Remonde was present. Apparently, as you can read on Ms. Tordesillas’s blog, the dinner was at the invitation of Congressman Martin Romualdez of Leyte, obviously another Filipino public servant/official. Manolo Quezon III already has a post about this, and I am sure dozens of bloggers and thousands of commenters will send messages flying over the next day or two, so there is already much being written, discussed, criticized, etc. about the dinner that took place — they’re all worth reading if you are the type who still cares at all. MLQIII writes that the dinner was on the occasion of the First Couple’s 41st wedding anniversary.
So why shouldn’t approximately 28 members of a Presidential party on a foreign trip indulge in a PHP960,000 dinner? Because it is INSENSITIVE. Period. And when word of such a lavish meal hits the blogs, press, common citizen, it leaves a foul taste in the mouth. But you know what really leaves a foul taste in MY mouth, it’s that this particular meal was MOST PROBABLY enjoyed when everyone at that dinner party knew former President Aquino had just died…
Here is my timeline, gleaned from the press, and I admit, I do NOT know this for a fact, I am just analyzing second hand sources:
July 28, Tuesday: The day after the State of the Nation Address. President Arroyo and party depart on an afternoon flight for Vancouver, switching to a chartered PAL flight to Washington, DC, according to local newspapers. They arrive in Washington late afternoon or evening of July 28th as Washington is now 12 hours earlier than Manila.
July 29, Wednesday: Around 4 p.m. President Arroyo meets with President Obama for half an hour in the oval office, followed by a press conference. Later that evening, President Arroyo and party return to the Willard Hotel in Washington and she records some press interviews.
July 31, Friday: President Arroyo is advised that President Aquino has died at around 4pm, Washington time. At roughly 430pm Washington time, President Arroyo meets with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Willard Hotel in Washington, according to press reports. She presumably departed for New York either the evening of Friday, the 31st of July or Saturday morning, 1 August 2009.
Aug 2, Sunday: President Arroyo reportedly “offers mass” at 10am Sunday New York time for President Aquino, but Archbishop Timothy Dolan, according to the Inquirer also mentions from the pulpit that the high mass was also to celebrate President Arroyo’s 41st anniversary.
August 3, Monday: President Arroyo reportedly departs New York for San Francisco late afternoon.
Why am I so concerned with the timeline in New York? Because I was curious WHEN the $20,000 meal was enjoyed. The article in the NY post, published August 7, said the dinner was enjoyed “the other night,” so it must have been technically inaccurate. If my timeline makes sense, there are only three possible nights for this dinner:
Friday, 31 July — If GMA left immediately after her meeting with Secretary of State Clinton for New York, she could conceivably attended a late dinner at Le Cirque as reported, but this date is highly unlikely. But if it was this evening, they already knew President Aquino had passed away a few hours before. (NOTE: Press Secretary Cerge Remonde confirms in a report in the Inquirer late Sunday 9 August that they enjoyed a LATE DINNER after arriving from Washington on Friday 31 July — That means they were at the meal some 6 hours after President Aquino passed away).
Saturday, 1 August or Sunday, 2 August — MY BEST GUESS of when the $20,000 meal took place. So in either case, they were eating an extravagant meal and reportedly drinking it up KNOWING President Aquino had already passed away. Worse, they either ate the meal the NIGHT BEFORE they so publicly offered up or “shared” their mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or can I say even worse again, they enjoyed the meal later on Sunday JUST HOURS AFTER they went to mass at St. Patrick’s??
Yes, I am personally outraged. Yes, I am upset that several dozen Philippine government officials had the chutzpah to sit at a meal at Le Cirque for the reported cost and the timing of the meal. WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO DELICADEZA?
Apparently, Press Secretary Remonde stated in a text to Ms. Tordesillas that Malacanang definitely did NOT pay for the bill. So I guess that begs the question of WHO DID pay the bill? Was it paid for by Representative Romualdez, who apparently invited the Presidential party to dinner? And if that was so, was it really appropriate for a Philippine congressman to invite other government officials to a pricey dinner to celebrate a private or personal milestone such as a wedding anniversary? Doesn’t that somehow constitute a GIFT or BENEFIT of some sort that the public officials present in essence accepted? And this dinner reportedly run roughly PHP35,000 per person, so it would have been a substantial gift if that was the case… And if the good Congressman did pay for the restaurant bill on his own, doesn’t it seem at least a bit indelicate or inappropriate, given that at his position in government, he officially earns roughly PHP534,000 in salary per annum, according to the official state pay scales that I unearthed, here. (Those pay scales were adjusted in 2007 to roughly PHP534,000 per annum for a Congressman, and PHP762,000 for the President). That would mean that it would take nearly 2 years worth of his salary to pay for the meal. Duh, of course I know many Congressmen are independently wealthy long before they run for Congress, and he or any other person in the dinner party could certainly have paid for this out of their personal funds, but it still leaves a foul taste in one’s mouth, don’t you think? Even if the President paid for dinner, she would have to spend more than a year’s official wages to pay for the meal. To make a similar comparison, I wonder if Americans would get as upset if President Obama took his wife out for an anniversary dinner and spent $500,000 of their own money at a restaurant dinner for 30 people (U.S. Presidential salary estimated at $400,000 per annum)??? For propriety and appearances alone, wouldn’t it be best practice to avoid these lavish dinners, which to me, are essentially GIFTS? On the other hand, one can definitely say this was just a nice meal, enjoyed on a special occasion, paid for from private funds, but definitely involving currently sitting government officials. Hmmm.
And on a practical side, how was the dinner paid for? Credit card? Cash? Oddly, if it was paid for in cash, then someone presumably took out a wad of dollar bills and counted out the reported $20,000 for the server. Did that person bring the cash from Manila, and did he or she declare that they entered the US with more than $10,000 in currency and negotiable instruments? “Oh, Marketman,” I hear many of you groan, haven’t you heard of ATM’s? Then if the cash was withdrawn from an ATM in the U.S. (which would have taken some 20 days if from a single account due to daily limits), I wonder if the owner of that ATM account declared that particular deposit account in their statement of assets and liabilities, assuming the account owner was a Philippine public official… So you see, we DON’T REALLY KNOW the facts, but no matter how one looks at this, it still leaves a foul taste in one’s mouth.
At best, it was poor judgement and insensitive for nearly 30 senior government officials to partake in a lavish meal to celebrate a personal milestone while on an official trip to the U.S., particularly when 95% of Filipinos have little or no hope of being able to EVER afford such a meal AND when a well-loved icon of Philippine democracy and humility and public service and a former President had just passed away. At worst, well, I could write on and on and on. But I will leave it for each individual reader to come to their own conclusions. It will be interesting to see how Palace spokespeople will explain this latest PR fiasco in the days ahead.
Note: If you choose to leave a comment on this post, please keep it above the belt, okay? Or I will simply delete it. Thanks.