Cold case file: Venable contract

“One and one is two, and two and two is four, and five will get you ten if you know how to work it.”—Mae West

The Venable contract was a $75,000-a-month retainer to lobby Philippine interests with US politicians, policymakers and businessmen. It was signed on July 25, 2005, by then-National Security adviser Norberto Gonzales, without the written authorization of Gloria Arroyo.

One of the clauses in the contract provided for Venable to “secure [US] grants or congressional earmarks for support of the Charter-change initiative of the President of the Philippines.” That was unconstitutional and, perhaps, treasonous so the Senate blue-ribbon committee, then chaired by Sen. Joker Arroyo, decided to investigate.

The committee discovered that Gonzales only assumed he was authorized by Mrs. Arroyo to sign the contract; that no one else knew about the contract, except presumably Mrs. Arroyo; and that it would be funded by private-sector donors, a claim that could not be verified because Gonzales refused to name them.

Gonzales was in deep trouble but he got out of it. First, because the hearings had to be suspended when his blood pressure acted up and he had to be hospitalized. Second, Gloria came to his rescue. She gagged the entire Executive branch with Executive Order 464 and announced that she had canceled the contract. (This tactic would become the template for the ZTE-NBN scandal.) Third and last, after Gonzales left the hospital and reported back to work, Senator Arroyo, who at first seemed determined to get Gonzales, had a sudden and unexplainable change of heart. He said the contract had been canceled, and resuming the hearings would be a “waste of time.”

Was the contract really canceled in 2005?

Venable’s December 31, 2005, report to the US Department of Justice stated that it was paid $225,000 in legal fees by the Philippine government. Under the section “Receipts-Things of Value,” Venable reported: July 22-28/05, “Airline tickets, Hotel accommodations, and Meals;” Purpose: “Introductory meetings officials of the Government of the Philippines;” August 25-29/05, “Airline tickets, Hotel accommodations, and Meals;” Purpose: “Meetings with officials of the Government of the Philippines.”

On January 1, 2006, James Jatras of Venable submitted a registration report for an unwritten contract with Gen. Arturo Carillo, presidential adviser on military affairs. The verbal agreement included the activities mentioned in the Gonzales contract but that, “Matters pertaining to the domestic constitutional structure of the Republic of the Philippines specifically are excluded from this representation.” That can only be interpreted as a correction to the Gonzales contract.

Venable’s May 31, 2006, supplemental report to Justice department stated, under the “Receipts-Things of Value” section: December 19-23/05, “Airline tickets, Hotel accommodations, and Meals;” Purpose: “Meetings with officials of the Government of the Philippines.” Venable also charged legal fees from December 2005 to May 2006 amounting to $24,000. Its year-end report added another $35,000 in legal fees from June to December.

Venable’s May 31, 2007, report stated that it terminated its relationship with the Philippines on January 31, 2007.

What was Venable?

James Pitts and James Jatras were the signatories in the Venable contract. Pitts was not new to the Philippines. In March 2004 Pitts, for Venable, signed with Horacio Morales of Partido ng Masang Pilipino a flat fee of $75,000 to assist and arrange meetings with top US officials for presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr. during a planned US trip in April of that year.

In early 2007 Pitts, Jatras and Patrick O’Donnell left Venable for Squire, Sanders Public Advocacy. Venable reported the termination of its contract with the Philippines and, soon after, Squire’s, through O’Donnell, registered an unwritten contract with General Carillo. The contract was essentially the same as the earlier verbal agreement registered by Jatras.

Who brought Venable to Gonzales?

Senator Arroyo thought it was a waste of time to find out.

Journalist Ellen Tordesillas wondered whether Mrs. Arroyo’s brother, Diosdado, was somehow involved. I could not find anything other than a small item in Venable’s December 31, 2005, report mentioning a meeting with a certain Macapagal, D., US Embassy in Manila.

Who were the anonymous donors?

They could have been patriots, traitors, or foreigners who wanted Charter change for their benefit. Or maybe Gonzales made up the story after he was busted.

Was $75,000 the going rate for lobbyists in 2005?

The Washington Post of June 22, 2005, reported that retainers for new corporate clients ranged from $25,000 to $40,000 a month. The Indian government’s contract with Venable, signed on October 10, 2005, was for a monthly retainer of $50,000.

There are many other questions, but I’m out of space. Just take the Venable contract out of the freezer and fry it, let’s see what happens.

Manuel Buencamino

Buencamino was a weekly columnist for Today and Business Mirror. He has also written articles in other publications like Malaya, Newsbreak, "Yellow Pad" in Business World, and "Talk of the Town" in the Inquirer. He is currently with Interaksyon, the news site of TV5. MB blogged for Filipino Voices, blogs for ProPinoy and maintains a blog, Uniffors.com. Game-changers for him, as far as music goes, are Monk, Miles, Jimi, and Santana.

  • Fry it like a plump, juicy corn-fed burger on the barbie.

    I would note, however, that 2 + 2 = 5 if you live in Oceana and happen to have Big Brother setting the agenda. I think most Filipino big shots have trained well in doublespeak. Therein lies the difficulty of getting anything but grease in the eye whilst frying the burger.