MANILA, Philippines – Senators investigating the Philippine National Police’s anomalous purchase of helicopters allegedly owned by former first gentleman Mike Arroyo said the choppers may have been unwittingly used in election fraud in 2004.
Estrada questioned pilots Dennis Silvestre and Margarito Labastilla, who flew the former presidential spouse to Mindanao during and after the 2004 polls. Silvestre and Labastilla said their destinations included Tawi-Tawi, Marawi, General Santos City, Davao City, Cagayan de Oro City, and Bukidnon.
The lawmaker believes that in those trips, the pilots also unknowingly flew military officials and operators who cheated to ensure the victory of then presidential candidate Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. (Read: Operation Gloria).
Estrada read from an affidavit of the witness, which Senator Panfilo Lacson lifted from the records of the Senate Defense Committee.
The affidavit said then President Arroyo met with election officers of Lanao del Sur who were willing to make her win by wide margins in exchange for money and because they got a phone call from then Commission on Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano to expect people who will come to them and give them money.
“So unwittingly, kayo ang naging piloto, naging involved na hindi niyo naman nalalaman. I’m sorry, I’m not blaming you for this, kayo ay inutusan lang ng mga nakakataas sa inyo. Kayo ay naging parte rin, nag-participate rin kayo sa dayaan nung nakaraang eleksyon,” Estrada told the pilots. (Unwittingly, you were the pilots. You were involved without your knowledge. I’m sorry, I’m not blaming you for this. You only got orders from the higher-ups. You became a part of this, you also participated in cheating in the past elections.)
Lacson also told the two, “Kayo lamang ‘yung naglipad ng mga makasalananghelicopter.” (You just flew the sinful helicopters.)
Silvestre said he remembers flying a military official to Marawi but he failed to identify him. He and Labastilla denied having flown Garcillano in any of their trips.
The former first gentleman is accused of ordering the overpriced sale of his two pre-owned choppers to the PNP in 2009, even if the supply contract required brand new units. He allegedly profited from the sale as each chopper was sold at a price at least $70,000 higher than that pegged for a five-year-old helicopter.
Arroyo snubbed the hearing citing medical reasons.
Payments in cold cash
Despite Arroyo’s denials that he owned the choppers, the marketing manager of aircraft distributor Lion Air Inc. testified that she received regular payments from Arroyo’s office LTA Inc. for the operational expenses of the helicopters.
Edith Solano-Juguan said she collected monthly payments from LTA in a span of seven years. She said Arroyo always paid in cash and never issued a check.
Senators noted that the cash payments were meant to avoid a paper trail.
Another witness, former Lion Air Inc. flight dispatcher Domingo Lazo, said Arroyo controlled the flight schedules of the helicopters, sending him instructions via text message.
“Ang natatandaan ko po lahat ng instruction, galing lahat sa kanya. Lahat po ng flight schedule, sino pasahero, saan pupunta, galing sa kanya. Ang pagkakasabi po sa akin ni Mr. Po, si FG po (ang) may-ari,” Lazo said.
Conspiracy to cover-up
Senators also uncovered various irregularities in the purchase of the choppers.
PNP Director General Raul Bacalzo said the members of the team that inspected the helicopters did not have the qualifications for the job, and only the pilots in the group were competent to conduct an inspection. The team did not report that the helicopters were secondhand.
Asked if he checked the flight logs of the choppers, the head of the inspection committee, Director George Piano, said it was beyond his duty to do so.
Then PNP Director General Jesus Verzosa also refused to take responsibility for the sale, saying he did not know the choppers were pre-owned. He added that the PNP is a big organization and he expected the heads of departments to do their job.
The Commission on Audit also failed to detect the anomalies in the sale of the choppers.
“My God, to tell you the truth, the impression now in this particular case is that there is a conspiracy to cover up something here,” said a frustrated Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile.
‘Swak na swak’
Senator Franklin Drilon also questioned why the PNP changed the standard specifications of the National Police Commission (Napolcom) for the purchase of helicopters.
“It’s very clear they amended the specifications para swak na swak sa Raven I,” said Drilon. The choppers Arroyo allegedly owned are Raven I.
The Senate will invite then Napolcom Chairman and Interior and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo Puno to the next hearing. No date has been set for the continuation of the inquiry.