Philippine ex-priest confirms he received cash after Arroyo meet

By Raju Gopalakrishnan, Reuters

SAN FERNANDO, Philippines — A Philippine priest-turned-governor who said he was handed a large sum of cash after a meeting with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo says her administration is seen as corrupt but he does not know if she is.

Eddie Panlilio’s admission he was given half a million pesos (US$11,365) at the Malacanang palace last week has led to calls from the powerful Catholic church for Arroyo’s resignation and provided support for an impeachment complaint against her.

“She has a lot of positive qualities and a lot of negative qualities as well,” the former priest, now a politician of five months, said of Arroyo.

“She’s very intelligent, she’s very determined, she has a very broad outlook and comprehensive knowledge about development and governance,” he told Reuters in an interview on Thursday.

But he added, “She’s hot tempered, and whether rightly or wrongly, her administration is perceived to be very corrupt.”

Asked if he believed Arroyo herself was corrupt, Panlilio said, “I don’t really know.”

Newspapers have said officials at the palace handed between 200,000 and 500,000 pesos to each of about 400 lawmakers, governors, and other supporters of Arroyo who came to meet her last week.

Some commentators have said giving cash gifts to allies has not been unknown in the past in Philippine politics, but such incidents are rarely openly discussed. Even this time, few of the other recipients have admitted they were given money.

But Panlilio, called “Among (Father) Ed” by his supporters, said he accepted the money believing it was to be spent on development projects, and that he has now written to Malacanang asking where it came from.

“If Malacanang doesn’t admit that the funds came from Malacanang, I will believe that those funds came from a malicious source and they were meant for bad motives, and they should not be used,” he said.

“I will return it but the problem is to whom will I return it?”

In a staunchly Catholic nation where priests are much respected, Panlilio’s comments set off a storm.

House of Representatives Speaker Jose de Venecia, who is an Arroyo ally but is said to be drifting away from her, called for a probe into the incident and said the president needed to reorganise her cabinet to win back people’s trust.

The controversy is the latest in a series of scandals facing Arroyo and analysts say a split with de Venecia, who controls a 95-strong block in the lower house, could be risky for the president, who is facing a fresh impeachment complaint.

At least 80 signatures are needed for an impeachment complaint to progress to the opposition-dominated Senate. Arroyo currently dominates the lower house and defeated two previous impeachment complaints, in 2005 and 2006.

Arroyo’s spokesman has said she has ordered her own inquiry into the gifts of money and no public funds were involved.

Panlilio is well known in his province of Pampanga, north of Manila, but this incident has brought him to the national stage.