PART III: Still Inside the Restaurant

Apr 28, 2009
Last April 16, Annabelle Rama said she received a text message claiming that "Wilma Galvante is behind the PEP story" on her son and talent Richard Gutierrez.

While the Philippine Entertainment Portal was interviewing movie stars who could shed light on the March 29 Incident, it was also gathering information from non-showbiz persons. In particular, we focused on the restaurant staff. In the end, we spoke to four waiters and two managers.

For this task, PEP sent various persons to the restaurant on five separate occasions, including during the Holy Week break. Note that at this time the Incident had already been carried by all media. Instinctively, we knew that the next interviewees would be more reluctant to speak. Or, if they spoke, would demand anonymity. And the reason they would give would be the jobs they had to protect.

We were right.

In the course of uncovering information, the occasion now required us not to introduce ourselves as members of the press. Certainly, we were open to information that could be negative or positive for us, and we were determined to engage in a search that would end up revealing the facts of March 28-29. Yet, doors would close for certain if we did our investigative work with our press I.Ds.

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A SIMPLE QUESTION. Thus, the persons PEP sent out were to use the tone of curious showbiz observers or even entertainment aficionados. They were to ask this question: "Dito nangyari iyong party ni Direk Mark, 'di ba? Totoo bang may gulo? O wala?"

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Given such a simple question, who would've thought we would harvest answers so reserved and careful? Well, we did!

Waiter No. 1, male: "No comment."

Waiter No. 2, female: "Wala ako nung nangyari yun."

Waiter No. 3, female: "Wala namang nangyaring ganu'n."

Waiter No. 4, male: "Hindi po kami allowed magsalita."

The answers rendered us even more curious. We asked ourselves: Why disallow waiters from speaking if there was nothing, in fact, to speak about? Why take the extra measure of gagging everybody if there was nothing to reveal? Why a "no comment" in place of a simple yes or no?

This bewilderment made us decide to speak to more persons than the four waiters and two managers mentioned here. However, again we were made to promise that their names would in no way be mentioned. Even more haplessly, we had to accept their comments as off the record!

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This meant we could not even lay them out in our report, even if we attributed them to no specific names.

Frankly, we could not understand all this secrecy.

After all—except for two—their statements just led us to one conclusion: No incident occurred inside the restaurant.

In any event, our interviewers took this tack in one of our five visits: Inquire about such things as venue rental costs and facilities, then ask about the published "Incident."

(Incidentally, at about this time our interviewers chanced on two men, whom they recognized as showbiz reporters, who were in the restaurant ostensibly as diners but were most probably there also to ask questions. In fact, PEP would later discover, from the restaurant staff, that many persons introducing themselves as reporters came in to inquire about the "Incident.")

A DIFFERENT STATEMENT. At one point, PEP logged an 18-minute conversation with a person who said he/she heard about the goings on of March 29. This one was quite direct. It confirmed that there was, in his/her words, "pikunan." In other words, people lost their cool. Some of the waiters were supposed to have witnessed this.

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In the person's words: "Yeah, it's true. [Nagkapikunan.] Sina Michael [Flores] at Richard [Gutierrez]. Nakita ng staff at iyong guard yata ng SM. Actually, bawal po kaming maglabas ng kahit ano."

But this statement, he/she made clear, was not for attribution. And he/she was to be totally out of the picture. We probed some more. This was the first person to directly mention a direct confrontation between Michael and Richard. In addition, he/she would actually repeat this statement one more time, via a phone conversation.

But in the end, the person would bury the statement, and never repeat it to us. In the next days, as we tried to shake his/her statement to see if it would change, the person's manner changed totally. The person turned cold, almost hostile toward us, telling us to leave him/her alone.

That is the last we heard about any confrontation. Till the end, barring Witness 1 and Witness 2, it was also the only one that talked about a confrontation.

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Therefore, we could not give it credence.

The next step was to make the statements official. Through April 13 to 15, our queries by phone were now directed to two persons: the restaurant manager and the restaurant marketing manager.

At this time, PEP learned that the restaurant had also done its own quiet probe. The marketing manager, in particular, went out of his way to ask staff present on March 28-29 about any event that may have transpired there.

The next day, April 14, the marketing manager got back to PEP with this conclusion: "Wala raw nangyari."

We then requested for an official statement, or an incident report. In effect, if nothing happened, then all the official letter had to say was that nothing happened.

A MANAGER'S LETTER. Instead, we got this letter on April 14. It was signed by the restaurant manager, Lhen Baterina:

Last March 28, 2009, I was on duty from 1:00pm till 4:00am. We were waiting for Mark Reyes' birthday celebration to finish before we can close the entire store. We didn't know anything about the incident between Michael Flores and Richard Gutierrez up until Ms. Rachel, Sales Manager of Cravings Group called me two days after to ask me if I can get the name of the guard on duty during Mark Reyes' birthday. That was when I was informed about what has been running around showbiz news. After the conversation with Ms. Rachel, I asked my staff if they knew anything about the issue. Vince, the Captain of our opening team told me that he saw it on TV.

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That same day, I had a guest who knew/saw the news on TV. She was asking me if the rumors are true, I told her I don't know whether the issue is true or not because I really didn't know anything about it up until someone actually brought it up to me. After several weeks, the guest went back here to dine and asked the same questions. She told me that if we will be paid millions in exchange for my staff and my testimonies. I told her that all of us, from C2 Oceana didn't witnessed anything that night and even if we knew something that might be of help to resolve this issue, our company will not allow us to testify for such controversy We are the front liners of this company, hence, we are responsible for whatever image we establish thru our actions and words.

That night, Karen of PEP called me thru my mobile phone trying to solicit for my testimony and asking for the name of my staff who happens to claim that he saw the incident. I didn't gave any name or number and instead talked her out of trying to bug me with something I am not involved at.

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Since then, they won't quit calling me trying to get their luck in getting information from us. They even threatened me that if the court will call for our presence, there is nothing that we can do but to talk and tell everyone regarding the things that we know.

This is all that I know and we, as a team are very much confident that our hands and conscience are clean regarding this controversy. All we ask is that our names as individuals and the image of our restaurant may no longer be part of the issue.

A MANAGING EDITOR'S LETTER. The letter was bothersome. Because of its ambiguity about who may have offered Ms. Baterina "millions," and with the name of PEP managing editor Karen Pagsolingan (the Karen referred to in this letter) coming so close to that distressful paragraph, Karen sent a response.

She sent it the following day, April 15, addressing the letter to "the management of Oceana":

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This is to acknowledge receipt of a copy of the letter/ incident report prepared by Lhen Baterina regarding the incident that took place at Oceana: CCA Restaurant and Events Place, on March 29, 2009.

I would like to assure you that while I spoke with Lhen a couple of times at your restaurant, as was the case of other reporters who were also asking about the incident, if at all some threat or offer of money in exchange for testimony was made to her, the same was not made by me or anyone from PEP.

I am sending this letter to you to assure you the person/s referred to by Lhen in her letter/ incident report are not from PEP.

Our conversations with Lhen were limited to inquiries on what she knows about the incident and if she knows who among the other employees of the restaurant may have similar information for us.

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CLARIFICATON IN LETTER. On April 25, a letter from Lhen Baterina, Oceana restaurant manager, arrived. Its contents remained the same as her original letter. Except that this time she named the person who reportedly told her that they "will be paid millions in exchange for my staff and my testimonies..."

She named a certain "Denise," mentioning no family name. She said it was this Denise who came to the restaurant with a "guy friend" to seek her out.

WORD FROM RICHARD, MICHAEL, MARK. Since March 29, Richard Gutierrez has already told the entertainment press several times that he had absolutely no bad encounter with Michael Flores at the party.

In the April 4 episode of Startalk, he said: "Di po totoong may nangyaring gulo. Maski anong klaseng gulo, kahit verbal or anumang actions, walang nangyaring gulo."

Michael Flores himself has many times vehemently denied criticizing— Richard Gutierrez, a star whose stature in the entertainment industry he seems to be in awe of; Mark Reyes, a director he is a friend to and whose birthday he was there to toast; or even Zorro, an adventure series in whose cast he wants to be a part.

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In Startalk, April 4, Michael said this: "Kung mag-aaway man kami ni Richard, maganda kung nandun ako sa Zorro as kontrabida. Tapos dun kami mag-aaway. Yun, puwede yun! Pero naman, yung personal na magkaaway, dios ko naman, napakalayo!"

As for Mark Reyes, the director whose fortieth-birthday party it was that March 28-29, he was one of the first to appear in public to say that nothing happened.

His Showbiz Central interview last April 19 went: "I will wait for that [investigation]. I would want to find out who knew what. Because as a host who had the party, I would want to know kung talagang may nangyari. Because until they have not shown to me anybody who would really say na, 'I saw what happened," I will not believe it because, you know, it could be just hearsay. To our mind, to, what, 200 of my guests, nothing happened."

CONCLUSION: PEP has gathered more statements saying that no Incident happened within the Oceana restaurant from the evening of March 28 to the early morning hours of March 29. This gives weight to the idea that, indeed, nothing untoward occurred inside the restaurant that night.

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But more than just the numbers, the statements came from a good range of witnesses: from waiters, managers, movie stars, and a few others we have committed not to name.

All said: Nothing happened inside the restaurant.

Witness No. 1. PEP is inclined to say that, very likely, Witness No. 1 really saw the movement of people inside the restaurant—but read too much into it, or misinterpreted it altogether.

That is, he truly believed he saw what he saw. But our own reading of the scenario he laid out before us is that much of it was a result of his own subjective thinking.

For instance, we can believe that the witness actually saw Leo Martinez and Joel Torre hanging around Richard Gutierrez at one point, somewhere near the lavatory area where Michael Flores was. But he did not actually know that Leo and Joel were stopping a confrontation from happening. He interpreted their movement as the act of stopping a confrontation.

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For all the witness knew, Leo Martinez and Joel Torre were just shaking dust off their shoes and taking time off their seats, while Michael was simply letting the booze out of his system, and Richard, feeling light and good, just wanted to stand around, too.

However, we do not attribute any bad faith in Witness No. 1. We see nothing—no association, no motive, no background—to compromise his integrity. What is more, his station in life is too simple and lowly for him to have the gumption to invent a big lie and, more incredibly, stick to the lie after we grilled him five different times in five different ways to retell his story.

We believe he simply read more into what was actually there.

Witness No. 2. The same goes with Witness No. 2. This one actually admitted that his reading of the body language of Richard Gutierrez must have been influenced by talk he had picked up earlier about Michael Flores criticizing Zorro and its lead star.

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In turn, this must have influenced how he began to read Richard's later actions. Example: "Aligaga." "Di mapakali, labas masok." "Nakatingin kay Michael."

Moreover, neither Witness No. 1 nor Witness No. 2 was ever close enough to actually hear what the stars were saying to each other. This gives their stories another weak foundation, a fact they both acknowledged when we pointed this out to them.

A Fine Point: In fact, both witnesses never said there was a heated argument or verbal confrontation between Richard and Michael. They consistently spoke only of a near-incident—"mukhang nagkainisan," "parang galit"—which was their own interpretation of the mix of body language and gossip before them.

It was the PEP article that wrote that part up inaccurately.

THE REPORTER. We asked our reporter, Bong Godinez, how he could have written that an "altercation," "fracas," "squabble," or "heated argument" had occurred, involving Richard Gutierrez and Michael Flores, when the two stars weren't even together long enough in one spot for any such exchange to happen.

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And again, how he could have put that down when no one, not even the two witnesses, ever said an encounter actually happened.

Bong said, quite contritely, that he had misinterpreted Witness No. 1.

He explained that he was interviewing the witness at the ungodly hour of three-past in the morning, when both had had a full day. Bong admitted to being fatigued and to not being very sharp by then. He thought he heard the witness say there was a confrontation, when the witness was saying there was almost one.

Morever, in his state, our writer turned careless and glib, picking out words like "squabble" and "fracas" too liberally. He knew, he said, that the words must match the deed. He ended by saying he was sorry, but that his was an honest mistake.

Another mistake was that regular editorial procedure was not followed: The interviews had not been completed. The cross-checking of names, dates, figures had just begun. The bad, old practice of entertainment writing—where a story is published even with only one side and one source in, justified by the writer's avowed effort to get the other side and the other source the next day—was at work here.

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This is not tolerated in PEP, particularly for sensitive, issue-based, or controversial topics, and our reporter has been apprised of consequent administrative sanctions.

Working in his favor, we must say, is that this is the reporter's first infraction. The man has been with PEP for two years, and in that time has not racked up any record of inaccuracies or misinterpretations. A good reporter, he tripped only on this one.

WILMA GALVANTE. Of late, aspersions have been cast on PEP. The most insidious charges that our reporter posted information he knew to be inaccurate in exchange for personal gain.

Here is the article "Annabelle Rama sues Ms. Wilma Galvante for grave slander," posted April 16, on this site. It is an interview of Ms. Rama on April 15, the day the talent manager filed a P25-million counterclaim for damages against Ms. Galvante, senior vice-president for entertainment of GMA-7, who had filed on March 17 a P7-million civil case against her.

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Annabelle was quoted as saying: "Actually, ngayon ko lang aaminin sa inyo. Noong April 8, may nag-text sa akin. Sinabi na sa akin ang grupo, kung sino yung gumagawa ng imbento sa PEP. Yung paninirang-puri sa PEP kay Richard.

"Aaminin ko na sa inyo, may nag-text sa akin, na ang behind sa PEP story, e, si Wilma Galvante. Ayokong banggitin yung mga kasama niya, kasi ang kasama niya, talagang inggit na inggit kay Richard. Gusto talaga na pabagsakin si Richard. That's their plan now."

In effect, Annabelle Rama was saying that Wilma Galvante roped in PEP reporter Bong Godinez to do a hatchet job on her son Richard. Since no reporter would compromise himself voluntarily, the implication was that the reporter is part of a destabilization plot, so to speak, in exchange for money or favor. And the proof is supposed to be the (withdrawn) March 29 PEP article on Richard and Michael.

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Categorically, for my reporter, I say: No, that is not true.

Categorically, for the entire PEP team, I say: No, that cannot be true.

Categorically, for myself, I say: No, that will never be true.

INDEPENDENCE. If there is anything our readers should know about us, it is this: We guard our independence with a passion, for this is what sustains our credibility, and our credibility is our capital. Our website is robust precisely because we protect this independence with all our skill and will.

Our reporters may err in any other area, but not this one. Our team will not be used, bought, pushed, blackmailed, frightened, or sweet-talked into engaging, deliberately and knowingly, in such an act as feeding wrong information to bring somebody down. Or, for that matter, feeding wrong information to boost somebody's stock.

Both would be criminal behavior by the rules of journalism.

We are in the business of telling it as it is. We are far away from the business of spinning stories. We call it as we see it. In the process, we will not always please everybody. We will get complaints and brickbats and bad text messages. And now and then, we will get lawsuits.

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The simple truth is: Wilma Galvante has no connection with PEP. She has no power over PEP. She has not shown any interest in befriending PEP or in quarreling with it. I know Ma'am Wilma—the name by which she is addressed in the industry—because she produces entertainment and I cover it. That is also alone the association she has with reporter Bong Godinez, whom she does not even know personally.

If the suggestion is made that there are lackeys to do that job for Ms. Galvante, then whoever is making that suggestion must name names. PEP would be interested in writing it up.

CONCLUSION. PEP concludes that no altercation, squabble, heated argument, or fracas occurred inside the Oceana restaurant on the evening of March 28 and the early morning of March 29. Richard Gutierrez did not have a heated argument with anybody. He and Michael Flores did not get into more than the usual social exchange between acquaintances.

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The original PEP article did preface its report with "reportedly involved in a heated squabble," "alleging that Zorro lead star, Richard Gutierrez, and former TGIS mainstay Michael Flores, got into a heated altercation..." and "Epy Quizon, son of Comedy King, Dolphy, was also reportedly involved in the fracas."

And now, after completing a relatively thorough investigation of events occurring inside the restaurant on the night and morning in question, PEP concludes that its March 29 report, "Richard Gutierrez reportedly involved in a heated squabble with Michael Flores," is inaccurate.

(Click here to read PART IV.)

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Last April 16, Annabelle Rama said she received a text message claiming that "Wilma Galvante is behind the PEP story" on her son and talent Richard Gutierrez.
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