MANILA, Philippines – The Senate committee hearing on the 2004 "Hello, Garci" electoral fraud scandal turned into a "war of words" after Senator Alan Peter Cayetano called a resource person, Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr, names.
Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, chairman of the electoral reforms committee, had to suspend the hearing Tuesday, June 10, twice to cool down the heads of the two men.
Cayetano has always been critical of Brillantes, an election lawyer who represented the rival of Cayetano's wife before he was appointed to the poll body.
"Hello, Garci" refers to the tapped phone call made by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to elections commissioner Virgilio Garcillano during the canvassing of presidential votes in 2004. She was supposedly asking "Garci" to make sure she would lead by one million votes over her closest rival, now deceased Fernando Poe Jr, father of the senator.
Brillantes in 2004 was Fernando Poe Jr's election lawyer.
Brillantes took exception to Cayetano's comments during the interpellation period after Senator Poe's speech.
"Nabasa ko ho sa dulo ng interpellation na, 'Si Chairman Brillantes, 'pag nandiyan pa siya, hindi pa siya nagre-resign sa 2016 at hindi pa siya nagre-retire, lulutuin niya 'yung election sa 2016,'" said Brillantes.
(I read at the end of the interpellation, "If Chairman Brillantes would still be at Comelec, if he does not resign or retire by 2016, he will rig the 2016 elections.")
"For the record, I'm about to retire in February 2015. How can I rig the 2016 polls when that's nearly one and a half years after I retire?" Brillantes asked.
The Comelec chairman also reacted to being called a "Garci in disguise."
"Nakakabigla naman.... Hindi ko naman kaibigan o kakampi si Garci noong 2004 (I was surprised. I'm not even Garci's friend or in his camp in 2004)," continued Brillantes.
Cayetano also supposedly said during his interpellation of Poe that he "suffered first-hand from Chairman Brillantes."
'You're worse than Garci'
When Cayetano got his turn to speak, he said, "I apologize if you were hurt by the line 'Garci in sheep's skin,' but to tell you frankly and in your face, you're worse than Garci."
He then clarified what he said during his interpellation of Poe's speech.
"I said that if Chairman Brillantes does not retire by next year and he modifies the system, then there would be no change in the 2016 elections. You can still change the automated system now. You can make it better, or you can make it worse," Cayetano said.
He continued, "The commission will not have time after you retire. So the change or the new machines or the new system will happen during your time. And if that system is flawed, it will be in your hands."
The senator cited as an example the transmission problems of precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines during the May 2013 midterm elections.
Status of investigation
Cayetano then prodded Brillantes about the findings of the "Hello Garci" investigation jointly conducted by Comelec and the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Cayetano reminded Brillantes of his promise to the Commission on Appointments (CA) that he would investigate the "Hello, Garci" scandal.
Brillantes confirmed it, saying that at the time of his confirmation by the CA, there was already a resolution that a joint DOJ-Comelec panel would probe the 2004 "Hello, Garci" case and the 2007 electoral sabotage case, which also involves Arroyo.
However, Brillantes said, the Comelec prioritized the 2007 electoral sabotage case, with the Senate taking care of the 2004 case after he agreed with Senator Teofisto Guingona III on the division of tasks.
Cayetano denied this, saying that the DOJ-Comelec panel committed to both cases during the CA hearing. "The legislature investigates in aid of legislation. The DOJ-Comelec panel investigates for prosecution."
"Let me rephrase the question: Meron po bang findings ang DOJ-Comelec panel sa 2004 case?" asked Cayetano. (Does the DOJ-Comelec panel has findings about the 2004 case?)
"Wala pa ho, kasi wala pa nga [rito] sa committee ni Senator [Koko] Pimentel at Senator [Teofisto] Guingona, jointly is manguguna muna sila sa 2004..." Brillantes tried to explain before he was cut off by Cayetano. (None yet, because the committee of Senators Pimentel and Guingona, who would jointly probe the 2004...)
'Garci boy' Sumalipao
Cayetano also brought up the so-called "Garci boys," the local election officials who were mentioned in the "Hello Garci" phone calls who supposedly helped Garcillano in his operations.
The senator said that some of them were even promoted, including now Autonomous Region is Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) regional director Rey Sumalipao. At the time of the scandal in 2004, he headed the provincial board of canvassers in Lanao del Sur.
Brillantes said that he did not promote any of the "Garci boys."
"I have only promoted one person – a woman at that – and she's not a 'Garci girl.'"
Despite the heated exchange between Brillantes and Cayetano, Poe appreciated what happened.
"The point is, there's a lot to be done to make sure this imperfect system is more functional and will be better," said Poe.
"Our focus is to ensure that our elections are free from fraud and that we are prepared for the 2016 and the succeeding elections... A clean and honest elections is justice enough for the Filipino electorate," she added.
"This goes beyond FPJ," Poe said.
Before Cayetano left the hearing, he said to Brillantes, "Sana po, bago kayo mag-retire, tapusin na po natin ito [ang imbestigasyon]. (I hope that before you retire, you would finish the investigation.)"
Also discussed during Tuesday's committee hearing were the application of the Anti-Wiretapping Law to combat election fraud, and the extension of the prescriptive period for election offenses to 10 years from the current 5 years. – Rappler.com
Michael Bueza is a researcher and data curator under Rappler's Research Team. He works on data about elections, governance, and the budget. He also follows the Philippine pro wrestling scene and the WWE. Michael is also part of the Laffler Talk podcast trio.