By Teresa Cerojano
The Associated Press
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s aides struggled to explain a reported $20,000 dinner bill racked up by her and her entourage in New York while the Philippines was mourning the passing of former leader Corazon Aquino.
A report by the New York Post’s online edition last Friday said Arroyo was at Le Cirque restaurant in Manhattan with a large group “enjoying the good life.” Arroyo reportedly ordered several bottles of expensive wine, pushing the dinner tab up to $20,000.
Arroyo spokesman Cerge Remonde called the report “exaggerated” and rejected calls to apologize.
“If it was really ostentatious, we should apologize, but it is not really ostentatious and we stand by that,” he said.
Opposition Sen. Francis Escudero said, “it leaves a bad taste in the mouth for them to spend so lavishly while so many are poor in the Philippines.” About a third of the Philippine population of 90 million lives on less than $2 a day.
Remonde said the president’s entourage of about 30 had a “simple late night dinner” from a set menu that included soup, salad, a choice of fish or meat, and a choice of drinks.
The restaurant’s website lists two possible set menus for dinner — a “Chef’s Seasonal Menu” at $58 and a “Chef’s Tasting Menu” at $120 per person, with $60 wine pairings.
Remonde said Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez — one of the richest members of Congress and nephew of former first lady Imelda Marcos — paid for the Aug. 2 dinner. He said it would have been “impolite” for Arroyo or her husband “to inquire from their host where they will be fed or what they will be fed.”
However, Romualdez’s office said it was the lawmaker’s brother Daniel who footed the bill, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported last Tuesday. He was described as one of the most successful Filipino architects in New York.
Rep. Walden Bello of the left-wing Akbayan party said he would file a complaint against Arroyo before the government’s Ombudsman for accepting a dinner treat, which he called “unethical and not legal under our anti-graft laws.”
Romualdez could not be reached for comment. His staff said he was absent from the House session.
At the time of the dinner, the Philippines was mourning the passing of former President Aquino, the democracy icon whose Aug. 5 funeral drew the largest crowd since she led the 1986 “people power” revolt that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Arroyo was criticized for not returning to the Philippines quickly. She finally visited Aquino’s wake but only for several minutes. The two had a falling out over Aquino’s calls for Arroyo to resign on allegations of vote-rigging and corruption. ♦