And the militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), which referred to the story of the New York Post that was posted August 7 on its website, is demanding an explanation.
Richard Johnson wrote the brief report in the Page Six “Eat and Drink” section of the NY Post online edition.
It read: “The economic downturn hasn’t persuaded everyone to pinch pennies. Philippines President Maria Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was at Le Cirque the other night with a large entourage enjoying the good life, even though the former comptroller of her country’s armed services, Carlos Garcia, was found guilty earlier this year of perjury and two of his sons were arrested in the US on bulk cash-smuggling charges. Macapagal-Arroyo ordered several bottles of very expensive wine, pushing the dinner tab up to $20,000.”
“Malacañang has a lot of explaining to do about this latest allegation which came out in an American paper. Who spent for the lavish dinner?” Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr. said in a statement.
In a statement issued Saturday, Makati Mayor and United Opposition president Jejomar Binay said: “How Mrs. Arroyo and her administration can justify blowing P960,000 for dinner and expensive wine at a time of economic difficulty is beyond me.”
Press Secretary Cerge Remonde, who was with the President’s entourage, did not respond to calls on Saturday.
But he sent a text message explaining that it was Leyte Representative Martin Romualdez who hosted the August 2 dinner for the President and her husband Jose Miguel Arroyo.
“It was Congressman Martin Romualdez who invited the First Couple to dinner at Le Cirque in New York. As to how much the dinner costs, Malacañang does not know as it was the host who chose the menu and picked up the tab,” Remonde said.
“There was no partying. Just dinner pure and simple,” he said.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer managed to reach Romualdez Saturday afternoon by phone. He said he was busy at the moment because there were people with him, and that he would call back.
He never did. The Inquirer tried to reach him again several times later in the day but he did not pick up.
Arroyo and her entourage flew to the United States for a working visit on July 29.
She met with President Barack Obama at the White House on the night of July 30 – the high point of her visit – and from Washington flew to New York for a series of meetings with multinational companies.
The President was billeted at the Waldorf Astoria, several blocks away from Le Cirque, when she was in New York.
Caviar and champagne
Arroyo arrived back in Manila early on August 5, and went straight to Manila Cathedral where the remains of former President Corazon Aquino lay in state, to pay her last respects.
The purported menu included caviar; such appetizers as lobster salad, wild burgundy escargot and soft shell crab tempura; main courses of black cod, halibut, Dover sole, saddle of lamb and prime dry-aged strip steak; and Krug champagne at $510 a bottle.
Bayan’s Reyes wondered if it was “appropriate for a head of state of a Third World country like Mrs. Arroyo to wine and dine in such a manner, given that we’re in the midst of a crisis.”
“This is one dinner that certainly leaves a bad taste in the mouth, at least for the rest of the Filipino people,” he said.
Reyes said that even if someone else had picked up the tab, it still did not look “appropriate.”
“It’s embarrassing for the Philippines to have such writeups appear in a foreign paper. It begs the question, what is Mrs. Arroyo really doing during her trips? Are taxpayers being made to shoulder the lavish lifestyles of the so-called rich and famous?” he said.
Reyes also said the mention of Garcia in the report was a sad commentary on Philippine officials’ reputation as corrupt.
“This ostentatious display of affluence reminiscent of [strongman Ferdinand Marcos’ widow] Imelda Marcos reinforces the perception that Philippine officials are corrupt and are living it up while others wallow in crisis. It is truly disappointing and disgusting,” he said.
He pointed out that in a November 2008 study that was part of Gallup’s World Food Day survey, 40 percent of Filipinos reported having experienced hunger “often or sometimes” in the last 12 months.
Food not bad
Sought for comment, some of the lawmakers who were among the President’s entourage did not want to make much of the affair.
Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez said he remembered dining with the President in a New York restaurant but added that the place did not seem “fashionable.”
Suarez said there were probably more expensive restaurants in New York’s five-star hotels.
“I don’t find it fashionable. The food is not bad. As for the place, the surroundings were not pretty,” he told the Inquirer.
Deputy Speaker Amelita Villarosa said she doubted that a dinner bill during the trip could reach $20,000.
Villarosa said she remembered dining at Le Cirque but not the details because she had several lunches and dinners during the trip.
She said she did not think that the bill could run that high because servings were big in US restaurants and members of Ms Arroyo’s party usually shared their orders.
Bacolod Rep. Monico Puentevella said he missed the dinner because he came down with a cold and a cough in New York.
“The extravagance showed the Arroyo administration’s insensitivity and hypocrisy,” Binay said, adding that the dinner was held hours before Ms Arroyo and her party flew back to Manila ostensibly to catch former President Aquino’s wake.
Binay said spending a huge amount of money equivalent to three square meals for almost 3,000 poor families appeared to be Ms Arroyo’s idea of honoring and respecting Aquino.
“What they did was deplorable, especially if taxpayers’ money was spent. If they spent private money, what they did was in bad taste and again showed insensitivity to the millions of Filipinos who face hunger daily,” he said. (With reports from Leila Salaverria and Niña Catherine Calleja)