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For the first time, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo openly lashed out at critics over her supposedly excessive travel expenses, insisting that her trips abroad were necessary for national security as well as the protection of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). In a radio interview aired Thursday morning, President Arroyo dared her critics to see for themselves the consequences of withdrawing the country’s policy of global engagement. “Kaya ang hamon ko sa ating critics: Sige mag-withdraw tayo sa global engagement. Gusto ba natin na less ang economic growth, gusto ba natin less ang national security, gusto ba natin na less ang protection sa OFW (I challenge my critics to see what happens if we withdraw our global engagement. Do we want less economic growth, less national security and less protection for OFWs)?" she said in an interview on dzXL radio. Mrs. Arroyo also said the law allows her office to take added travel expenses from the maintenance and other operating expenses of the Office of the President, and from the contingent fund. Besides, she said she got "only" P187 million from the contingent fund for travel since she was catapulted to power in 2001. “Sa mga biyaheng ito, ang daming trade opportunities na nabuksan o naipatatag. Ang daming investment opportunities. Kaya naman we have had 34 uninterrupted quarters of economic growth na hindi nangyari bago ang panahon ko (Because of these trips there had been so many trade opportunities opened or strengthened. That’s why we have had 34 uninterrupted quarters of economic growth that never happened before my time)," she said.
Click the map to enlarge The issue on the alleged lavish dinner at the posh Le Cirque restaurant in New York erupted after a column in the New York Post reported on the matter. This was followed by another report saying an earlier lavish dinner took place in Washington DC. Lavish dinners amid country's mourning These reports came at a time when the whole Filipino nation was mourning the death of its democracy icon, former President Corazon "Cory" Aquino. Palace officials have since issued pronouncements defending the President who had remained silent on the matter until her interview on dzXL radio, which was only aired Thursday. In mid-August, a lawmaker claimed that President Arroyo's expenses for her foreign trips since 2003 have gone beyond the allotted budget by around P1.6 billion. The issue has been the object of scrutiny by critics since Arroyo’s supposed lavish dinners in her latest trip to the United States were exposed to media. On August 19, Press Secretary Cerge Remonde described the presidential entourage in the US as very "frugal." “When I was in Willard (Intercontinental Hotel), I was sharing a room with Joey Isabelo. In New York, tatlo kami in the room. So, matipid kami sa OPS (In New York, I shared a room with two others. So we are frugal in the OPS)," Remonde said. [See story: Arroyo entourage spent over P37M in US.] Around 25 lawmakers were with the President on that trip, which prompted clamors for a House probe on the issue. But until now the House leadership has yet to come out with a report. Who paid for the congressmen? The Palace, the House of Representatives, and later, the US government have all denied that they paid for the US trip of the congressmen accompanying President Arroyo. And the congressmen themselves did not pay out of their own pockets. [See story: A mystery in the House: Who paid for members' US trip?] In New York City where Mrs. Arroyo and her entourage paid $20,000 for a dinner in a posh French restaurant, the party’s expenses reached $396,000 or more than P19 million. In Washington, she and her entourage reportedly dined at the posh Bobby Van’s Steakhouse, spending $15,000 on lobster, steak and fine wines, according to a Washington Post blog. Aside from the food items, the president's representation also allegedly spent P6 million pesos in tips during Arroyo’s six-day trip to the US. GMANews.TV