SAF Commandos confirm 2004 poll cover-up PART I

July 28, 2008

By ELLEN TORDESILLAS

VERA Files
Malaya July 28, 2008

(First of two parts)

When Gloria Arroyo delivers her eighth State of the Nation Address at the Batasang Pambansa session hall today, she will be standing close to where, three years ago, police commandos say they replaced genuine election returns (ERs) with fake ones in ballot boxes that were being readied for a recount of the 2004 presidential election.

The ER switching at the Batasan had been talked about and reported on since 2005, when Arroyo apologized for talking to an election official while the votes were being counted, in what has since been known as the “Hello, Garci” scandal.

Recently, some of those who took part in that clandestine operation have sought legal refuge, executing affidavits and taped testimonies of their involvement. Others told friends in confidence, while a few boasted about it in drinking sessions.

They said they switched the ERs of several provinces on three occasions to reconcile these with the figures in the certificates of canvass (COCs) and statements of votes (SOVs) that were tampered with in the 2004 elections.

The stories told by some of the participants and their confidants in the Batasan operation constitute what could be grounds for another impeachment case against Arroyo.

They revive allegations that not only did the President cheat in the 2004 elections, but also tried to cover her tracks by switching the ERs that would have been scrutinized in 2005. At that time, the presidential electoral protest filed by Arroyo’s opponent, Fernando Poe Jr., was still pending. Poe died of a heart attack in December 2004, but his widow, Susan Roces, pursued the protest. (She was turned down on the ground that the party in interest had died.)

Among those who took part in the Batasan operation were members of the Special Action Force (SAF), an elite unit of the Philippine National Police.

Some of them said they got their orders from Chief Supt. Marcelino Franco, then commanding officer of the SAF. Both Franco and the then chief of the SAF Intelligence and Investigation Division, Supt. Rafael Santiago, were present at a briefing on the operation, SAF sources said.

The SAF sources refused to be named for fear of their safety and that of their families.

“Basta ang initial info sa amin ay legal operation po ito pero hindi pa namin alam ang nature ng operation,” an SAF commando said.

Franco, in turn, got his orders from the former PNP chief Hermogenes Ebdane Jr., a trusted adviser of Arroyo, SAF sources said.

Ebdane had denied the allegations in previous reports. VERA Files tried getting his side of the story but has not received a reply.

Franco, who has since retired from the PNP and is assistant vice president of Security Bank, also declined to comment on his role in the ER switching operation.

Santiago, now senior superintendent and head of the Northern Police District’s Intelligence and Investigation Division, ignored requests for an interview.

SAF sources said the first ER switching operation took place around midnight of Jan. 23, 2005, a Sunday.

Here’s what happened based on interviews, taped testimonies, and documents obtained by VERA Files.

A van and three other vehicles arrived at the South Wing entrance of the Batasan complex. Two dozen people alighted from the vehicles, five of them non-commissioned officers, the rest civilians. Santiago was the team leader.

At that time, a makeshift storage room had been erected at the South Wing lobby for ballot boxes containing the returns of the 2004 elections. The boxes had been brought there for the national canvassing.

The go-signal came from SAF officers, among them Inspectors Rafael Lero and Samson Kimayong. While some stood guard, others unloaded from the van some 20 to 30 cigarette cartons containing documents.

As a lock picker opened the ballot boxes, SAF commandos said, the others took out the contents of the ballot boxes and replaced them with the documents they brought with them.

After three hours, they packed up, loaded what they took from the ballot boxes into their vehicles and proceeded to the residence of election lawyer Roque Bello in Brookside Hills, Cainta, Rizal.

The operation was repeated six days later on Jan. 29 and on the first weekend of February.

Police Chief Insp. Ferdinand Ortega, chief of the SAF contingent assigned at the Batasan, was present in all three operations.

Today, Lero and Kimayong have been promoted to senior inspectors and are also assigned at the NPD.

Ortega became commandant of the SAF Training School in Sta. Rosa, Laguna, right after the Batasan operation. Now a superintendent, he heads the SAF operations office in Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig.

Ortega and Lero likewise ignored VERA Files’ requests for an interview. Contacted by phone, Kimayong denied any knowledge of the 2005 operation.

What the SAF brought to the Batasan South Wing were fake election returns allegedly fabricated under the supervision of Bello. They stuffed these into the ballot boxes after they took out the genuine election returns, which they took to Bello’s place.

Contacted for his side, Bello said he had already denied involvement in the operation way back in March 2006 when pictures of the alleged manufacturing of ERs in his house appeared in Malaya and Newsbreak. “It’s not true,” reiterating his denial.

Two weeks before the Batasan ER switching operation, Poe’s widow, Susan Roces, had petitioned the Presidential Electoral Tribunal to replace her husband in the electoral protest he had initiated.

Poe’s running mate, Loren Legarda, had filed a similar protest, questioning the proclamation of her rival Noli de Castro and citing irregularities in the canvassing of votes in a number of provinces, many of them in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

Both Arroyo and De Castro had been proclaimed president and vice president after an administration-dominated Congress acting as National Board of Canvassers (NBC) reported that Arroyo obtained 12,905,808 votes against closest rival Poe who got 11,782,232 votes. De Castro garnered 15,100,431 votes against Legarda’s 14,218,709.

The minority members of the Joint Committee of Congress did not sign the NBC’s final report and instead issued “The True Report,” which was their own version of the results of the 2004 elections that showed Poe winning over Arroyo by 511,981 votes and Legarda over De Castro by 702,311 votes.

Citing several cases of manufactured election returns, tampered statement of votes and certificates of votes, the minority challenged the joint committee and Congress “to show that the numbers on those questioned certificates of canvass match their corresponding statements of votes and election returns.”

“The truth is in those election returns,” the minority said.

ERs are documents prepared by boards of election inspectors at the precinct level.

For president and vice president, the ERs are sent to the provincial and city boards of canvassers who then prepare certificates of canvass (COC) supported by statements of votes (SOV). The votes garnered by the candidates in the ER, SOV and COC are supposed to match.

This, in fact, seemed to be a concern uppermost in Arroyo’s mind shortly after the 2004 elections. A portion of the “Hello, Garci” tapes records her voicing her worry to then Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano.

Following are excerpts from a late evening conversation between Arroyo and Garcillano on June 2, 2004:

GMA: Hello. Dun sa Lanao del Sur tsaka sa Basilan, di raw nagma-match ang SOV sa COC?

Garcillano: Hindi nagma-match? May posibilidad na hindi mag-match kung hindi nila sinunod ‘yung individual SOV ng mga munisipyo….

GMA: So, nagma-match?

Garcillano: Oho. Sa Basilan, alam nyo naman ang mga military dun eh, hindi masyadong marunong kasi silang gumawa eh. Katulad ho dun sa Sulu sina General Habacon.

During the congressional canvassing, minority members called the NBC’s attention to the difference in figures reflected in the COCs, which was the basis of the proclamation, and in their copies of SOVs and ERs.

The then presiding officers, Sen. Francis Pangilinan and then Rep. Raul Gonzalez, now justice secretary, brushed aside the minority’s concern, and merely responded by saying, “Noted.”

In July 2006, Artemio Rasalan, a self-confessed election operator, executed an affidavit and videotaped confession of his role in what he described as a “grand clandestine operation to head off a looming crisis.”

This crisis was expected to erupt once the PET discovered the tampered ERs and the unmatching SOVs and COCs.

Rasalan said Bello had asked him sometime in July 2004 to undertake an operation that would “produce at least 10,000 new election returns duly accompanied by the appropriate Comelec envelopes: officially numbered envelope seals and the official Comelec inks for thumb marking.”

Rasalan identified nine provinces the ERs of which had to be replaced. These are Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, Sultan Kudarat and Saranggani in Mindanao and Isabela in Luzon.

Rasalan added that Bello then told him that Ebdane had engaged his (Bello’s) services on orders of Arroyo. Two months later, Rasalan said Roque told him he was coordinating closely with Garcillano.

“He (Roque) said the money for this special operation will be provided by PGMA (Arroyo’s official initials). As a matter of fact, a few days thereafter, I was told by Attorney Bello that Commissioner Garcillano met with PGMA at her La Vista home to receive the money,” Rasalan said.

They started making the fake ERs in mid-October 2004, Rasalan stated. It took them two months to finish the work. He then delivered the 10,000 fabricated ERs to Bello’s home in Brookside Hills subdivision, Cainta, Rizal for the printing of the correct original serial numbers.

With the 10,000 fake ERs ready, the last step was to put them inside the ballot boxes guarded by the SAF at the Batasan building so that when the PET started opening the ballot boxes, the figures there would match those in the tampered COCs and SOVs.

(To be continued)

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look into current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.” )

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