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Former Commission on Elections chairperson Sixto Brillantes Jr died on August 11, 2020. He was 80. He would’ve turned 81 in 3 days.
For 4 years that he was in the Commission on Elections (Comelec), my former boss and Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr would unfailingly come to the office before 7 am. Upon arriving, he would sit alone in his big table scribbling his day’s to-dos while his assistant would be preparing either Spam or Delimondo corned beef, which will be served later with two to 3 spoons of rice and two fried eggs.
In our first few months in government, he wanted everyone to report to the office at 7 am. But since government working time was at 9 am, we unwillingly entered in a compromise and moved our working time to 8 am, while most of Comelec’s lights were still off.
Our boss was a totemic figure in the election law practice, while we were a band of “baby” lawyers, fresh law graduates, and law students. All of us were very young with zero government experience – all idealistic, audacious, and yet to be broken by the world. In other words, we were his opposite.
I myself was only 25 years old when he plucked me from his law office, where I was his assisting lawyer for a year. I assumed the role of his chief of staff, too young and inexperienced for such a crucial role which people nicknamed as the “Little Chairman.” In hindsight, I think his preference was deliberate, knowing his limitations, and at the same time strategic for someone who had been criticized for supposedly being too old, technologically-challenged, and too familiar with the game play, the intrigues, and the personalities in the institution.
Tasks were neatly divided among the staff, and each morning we were obliged to sit at his conference table. Eight to 10 of us youngsters would surround him, each would discuss matters pending with them. Each one was required to hear and learn what everyone else was doing. He always emphasized that, in our office, no one should be indispensable, everyone should be replaceable so as not to sacrifice how documents ran. At our conference table, everyone was free to speak their mind and argue if they could.
The Chairman loved hours-long debates and constantly taunted us to engage in one. This was his process of sharpening his ideas or achieving clarity. At the same time, it was this daily intellectual spar that kept him razor sharp and his memory photographic even in his late 70s. Discussions could spill into lunches. He would prefer that all of us ate together at the same table and shared the same carinderia food.
After lunch and his sacred nap, his afternoons were spent going around Comelec offices at Palacio del Gobernador, talking to directors and employees alike. He always left his office open so everyone – from commissioners to even complete strangers – could walk in and talk to him. No small or big concern. He tirelessly heard everything.
Late afternoons to early evenings, all of us would carry piles of paper that we had worked on that afternoon for his signature so they can be released the following morning. Oftentimes, we had to remind him that it was 7 pm and that we had lives outside of the office. To call him hardworking would be an understatement. We simply couldn’t match his dedication to reform an institution he so loved within the very little time he was given.
Reforming how we conduct elections
In 2012, he ambitiously purged the party list, removing almost two-thirds or 189 out of 289 party-list organizations. He insisted that the system should be strictly confined to the truly marginalized and underrepresented. He was unfortunately reversed by the Supreme Court – a reversal that eventually allowed the party list to be overrun by traditional politicians and political dynasties.
In the same year, he cleansed and automated the voters’ list of the then-Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao which was traditionally bloated with double registrants. Around 400,000 dubious registrations were removed, and the list was slashed from 1.7 million to 1.3 million voters.
He was also in the headlines when he investigated former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for alleged fraud in the 2004 and 2007 elections, leading to her prosecution for election sabotage.
Later, he surprised the country by imposing a “money ban” a few days before elections. He wanted to limit daily cash withdrawals from banks to ₱100,000 during the period where movement of money spiked by the millions, apparently to be used for vote buying.
The move was out-of-the-box, if not audacious, and tested the limits of Comelec’s constitutional powers to deputize government agencies, including the Bangko Sentral. Suits were immediately filed with the Supreme Court and a temporary restraining order was issued, to the disappointment of the chairman. The case was later dismissed unresolved.
While the wisdom of the ban had been debated, it was so far the only concrete move from the Comelec to realistically address the worsening problem of vote buying.
Above all, his chairmanship could be credited for institutionalizing the shift from manual to automated elections, which experimentally debuted in the 2010 elections under Chairman Jose Melo. Despite the clamor and relentless lobbying by anti-automation advocates and losing politicians, he fought hard to automate the 2013 elections. He also set the stage for the 2016 automated elections.
As a veteran election lawyer who had handled countless poll fraud investigations and protest cases during the days of manual elections, he strongly believed that automating our election system was the only way for us to address the fraud and irregularities that haunted it. While he started as an unbeliever, having filed numerous election protests himself in 2010, he ended up as one of automated election’s staunchest defenders even after his Comelec term.
Internal, institutional changes
People might remember him for these big reforms, but for us insiders and those who knew the inner workings of Comelec, the best reforms he introduced were internal and institutional, pursued quietly and without a splash.
We found Comelec in bad financial shape when we came. It had an aggregate P3 billion in unliquidated or unaccounted cash advances incurred since 1987. While most people knew him as an election lawyer, he was actually also an accountant and numbers were his thing.
He worked with the Commission on Audit to clear the P1.8 billion that went to other agencies working with the Comelec, such as the Department of Education. The P1.2 billion was chased from Comelec employees who failed to liquidate their cash advances, our office churning demand letters for over 500 personnel and ending up firing a director who failed to liquidate up to P48 million. We cleared our books and kept it clean throughout our term by unforgivingly implementing a very simple yet clever rule that not a cent would be released to anyone with an unliquidated cash advance.
He also sent a strong message on conscientious spending by refusing a new service vehicle as Comelec tradition would dictate and despite finding himself without an official car. Using his own money, he instead quietly bought himself a model similar to the official one. He fixed the agency’s loose procurement system, even requiring bidding for the commissioners’ official new cars, when bidding had been traditionally skipped to secure immediate delivery and avert the impatience of the new appointees.
Expenses for the office and his travel were consciously kept to the minimum. Given that the agency suffered from the perception of corruption, he was very conscious of anything money-related. “Hindi natin pera ’yan eh, pera ng tao ’yan,” he would always tell us. (That’s not our money, that’s the people’s money.)
But what he deprived himself of, he never thought twice to give to the employees. He refused to give employees the equivalent of their one month’s salary as bonus, saying it was inequitable, especially for casuals and lower-tier employees.
While working within the same budget, he cleverly devised a “triangular” bonus scheme. He slashed the bonuses of upper-tier employees, like directors and division chiefs, in order to augment the bonuses of casuals and lower-tier employees. This way, the upper management would get less than their monthly salary as bonus, while the casuals and those with lower-grade salaries would get as much as double. He would always argue that managers losing P20,000 from their bonuses would not mean so much, while for lower employees earning a monthly P10,000 salary, getting P20,000 would create a bigger impact.
Attendance at Comelec was also a big mess when we came in. It was marked by habitual absenteeism and tardiness. He rocked the boat when he launched an unexpected audit of attendance, filed administrative charges, and imposed suspensions and dismissals. It also helped that employees learned he essentially opened and closed the Comelec gate every day, and had never been absent from weekly flag ceremonies.
Comelec was an open book under him, and reporters could simply knock at the office to access documents. No need for request letters whatsoever. His statements were always candid and honest, devoid of empty rhetorics. He had a weekly press con, and he never feared working and collaborating with media entities like ABS-CBN, GMA-7, and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, or trusting then-new entrants like Rappler. Letters from the public were individually answered following the 15-day civil service rules. One letter sender was so happy to receive a reply that he wrote us back – it was his first time to get a reply from a government agency.
Outside of these internal shake-ups, he disproved his critics by showing himself to be the most forward-thinking chairman of the Comelec. He nurtured an environment within the en banc which encouraged and allowed the commissioners to pursue a reform agenda. He set targets, split the job, and assigned it to his commissioners.
Commissioner Rene Sarmiento worked tirelessly to make voter registration and voting accessible to the indigenous peoples, the differently-abled, those detained pending sentencing, and even internally displaced persons. This later fully blossomed under the leadership of Commissioner Luie Tito Guia. Overseas absentee voting was greatly expanded and so was absentee voting for election workers and for the media.
Under the leadership of Commissioner Christian Robert Lim, the campaign finance law that was passed in 1991 was rigidly and aggressively enforced for the first time in 20 years! The stand-alone Campaign Finance Unit was constituted to audit the compliance of politicians and to fine or prosecute those who failed to comply.
As a person, Sixto’s greatest gift was his capacity to trust people. He listened to people and trusted them fully that it left them no option but to make good of what had been entrusted to them. From his law office to the Comelec, people who had worked for him would always have one thing to say: Sixto always had their backs. At Comelec, with the high risks involved in each decision, no one felt alone, abandoned, or thrown under the bus under his chairmanship. It was on this combined trust and sense of assurance that people around him, especially Comelec managers, dared to be creative, to risk or to try something new.
While Chairman Brillantes’ appointment may have faced fierce opposition from various sectors that he almost failed to get the nod of the Commission on Appointments, in the end he proved all of his critics wrong. While it might be self-serving for me to claim that he was the best chairperson to have led the Comelec, what can be objectively said is that, among all of them, he accomplished the most given his short term, leaving the Comelec a much better institution than when he found it. His familiarity with the institution, for which he was opposed, turned out to be his greatest advantage.
His little unfinished business was building Comelec a new home. Comelec is one of the few national agencies without its own headquarters and still rents. From Comelec’s savings of P1.2 billion, he was able to buy the agency a parcel of land in the Mall of Asia Complex (its value has doubled or tripled today), but his short term of 4 years didn’t allow him to build the agency a building. What he quietly built instead was a stronger institution, a better home for the employees.
He successfully reinstated the agency’s pride after decades of battling corruption scandals and poor public perception that, on our farewell ceremony, one director told me, “Attorney, ngayon lang uli kami naging proud na taga-Comelec kami.” (Attorney, this is the first time in a while that we became proud again to be with the Comelec.)
As for us his mentees, we went out not just trained in law and experienced in the workings of government, we all left shaped by a mentor and a father. Even years after we left Comelec, we could call him anytime for legal opinions or for work and personal issues, and he would unfailingly pick the phone each time.
He would brashly open the conversation with either “O, anong balita?” (What’s up?) or “Buhay ka pa pala?” (Oh, so you’re still alive!) and end up with a caring “O, relax ka lang diyan” (Don’t worry too much). I think this time it’s our turn to say, “Relax ka lang diyan, Sir!” (You have nothing to worry about, Sir!) You have done exceptionally well and so much for our country. – Rappler.com
Emil Marañon III is an election lawyer specializing in automated election litigation and consulting. He is one of the election lawyers consulted by the camp of Vice President Leni Robredo. Marañon served in Comelec as chief of staff of retired Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. He graduated from the SOAS, University of London, where he studied Human Rights, Conflict, and Justice as a Chevening scholar. He is a partner at Trojillo Ansaldo and Marañon (TAM) Law Offices.