(By Ellen Tordesillas, re-published with permission from the author and the Vera Files group)
WHEN Gloria Macapagal Arroyo [delivered] her eighth State of the Nation Address at the Batasang Pambansa session hall [last July 28, 2008], she [she stood 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 to the nation 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.
Orders came from Ebdane and Franco
Among those who took part in the Batasan operation were members of the Special Action Force (SAF), an elite combat unit of the Philippine National Police.
Some of them said they got their orders from Gen. 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 those of their families.
(The initial info we got was that it was a legal operation, but we didn't know the nature of the operation)," a SAF commando said.
Franco, in turn, got his orders from the former PNP chief, Brig Gen. 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.
How the switching happened
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.
Chief Inspector 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 Bicutan, Taguig.
Ortega and Lero likewise ignored VERA Files' requests for an interview. Contacted by phone, Kimayong denied any knowledge of the 2005 operation.
Returns fabricated by election lawyer Bello
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," he reiterated 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 declared Arroyo the winner with 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 disparity 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."
Rasalan: Money to tamper returns came from Arroyo
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."
He 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 quoted the election lawyer as saying that it was Ebdane who engaged 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 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.
Special Action Force of the Philippines
IT WAS NO accident that it was the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police that penetrated the Batasan Pambansa and stuffed the ballot boxes with fake election returns to make it look like Gloria Arroyo won the 2004 elections.
Established in 1983 initially to help combat insurgency and later to "destroy enemy forces that undermine the nation's stability," the police commandos are trained as a rapid deployment force and to "noiselessly operate in the shadows."
In its 25-year history, the elite unit has not been impervious to the country's political upheavals. The SAF joined the February 1986 people power revolution that followed the defection of its founder, then Armed Forces vice chief of staff and Philippine Constabulary-Integrated National Police chief Fidel V. Ramos, and toppled President Ferdinand Marcos.
But in early 2005, some of the SAF's own members said they undermined democracy when the unit switched the election returns on orders of former PNP chief Hermogenes Ebdane Jr.
Ebdane knew fully well and harnessed the unit's commando skills. After all, he had served as SAF commander from August 1989 to February 1991.
It also helped that the SAF was one of the units securing the House.
Had no one talked, the operation that took place on Jan. 23 and 29 and the first weekend of February 2005 would have been SAF's secret.
Franco 'principled,' but 'pragmatic' too
His colleagues describe Chief Supt. Marcelino Franco, who approved the operation as SAF commander at the time, as a "very serious, principled and highly professional" officer. But they also said that as a leader, he can be "very pragmatic."
Franco would later be implicated in the alleged plan of the Marines and Army Scout Rangers in February 2006 to withdraw support from Arroyo.
In his affidavit, former Armed Forces chief Hermogenes Esperon, then the commanding general of the Philippine Army, said that his two classmates in the Philippine Military Academy (Class '74)-Franco and Maj. Gen. Renato Miranda, then commandant of the Philippine Marines-had asked him to join them in their plan to withdraw support from Arroyo.
Esperon said this happened in a late-night meeting on Feb. 23 at the residence of then AFP chief Generoso Senga. He said Franco confirmed that "most of the elements of SAF-PNP will sympathize with those who will march and withdraw support from PGMA."
Military officers accused of planning the February 2006 protest activity said Franco knew first-hand that Arroyo cheated in the elections. Unlike those who are detained and being tried in court martial for mutiny, no charges were ever filed against Franco.
SAF sources said prior to the Batasan ER switching operation, Franco met with Ebdane and Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano. He then entrusted the task to Supt. Rafael Santiago, the commanding officer of SAF's Intelligence and Investigation Division.
Santiago, in turn, brought in young police officers, including Inspectors Rafael Lero and Samson Kimayong.
Santiago is said to be the quintessential intelligence agent. "Now you see him, now you don't," a police officer said.
Chief Inspector Ferdinand Ortega, who headed the SAF unit in the Batasan during the ER switching operation, appears to be well-liked in police circles. A colleague finds him "nakakatawang mayabang (amusing and a braggart)." He is affectionately called "Bungo" or skull, after the famous Baguio City police officer, Bobby Ortega, who was portrayed in two movies by the late actor Rudy Fernandez.
About 6,000 genuine election returns were replaced with manufactured returns in the January to February 2005 operations, a SAF source said.
A fourth operation was planned, but Chief Inspector Jimmy Laguyo, who by then had replaced Ortega at the SAF's unit at the Batasan, refused to cooperate, the source said. Franco had Laguyo transferred to Abra.
The fourth operation never materialized. The unit was kept preoccupied by a failed jailbreak at the SAF headquarters on March 14, 2005 in which suspected Abu Sayyaf members were killed. The Commission on Human Rights had ordered an investigation of the SAF shortly after the incident.
Reward for Batasan operators
The efforts of the SAF commandos who participated in the Batasan operation did not go unrewarded. The enlisted personnel were each given P10,000 one month after the operation.
"May natanggap kaming sobre na ibinigay sa amin na patago na sabi nila, 'Ito panggastos niyo. Ito 'yung reward natin sa operation natin sa Batasan (We were each secretly handed an envelope and told, 'This is for your expenses; this is our reward for the Batasan operation),'" one of them said.
He added, "Nung binuksan ko po 'yung envelope, naglalaman po ng P10,000. Hindi ko alam kung matuwa ako doon o matakot na gastusi 'yun kasi 'yun nga sa operation na 'yun (When I opened the envelope, it contained P10,000. I didn't know if I should be happy or be afraid to spend it because it was for that operation)."
Another enlisted policeman said they were summoned to the SAF office for the "good news." He said the higher-up who handed them the envelopes advised them, "Huwag na lang kayo maingay. Sa atin-atin lang ito (Don't talk about this. Let's keep this among ourselves)."
'Souvenirs' of election returns switching
The switching of the election returns at the Batasan was caught on video through a mobile phone camera. ABS-CBN had shown the video, but it went largely unnoticed.
But a SAF member who took part in the operation also has in his possession evidence-he calls it "souvenir"- of the operation: copies of the genuine election returns.
He said he removed five envelopes containing the returns from the van he was riding after the team left the Batasan compound in February 2005 and brought them home with him. Some of his colleagues did likewise.
The SAF member said he got curious and decided to inspect the contents of the boxes that had not been sealed with masking tape. "Yun 'yung election returns. Dahil po ako isang botante, alam ko po ang style ng election return (They were election returns. I'm a voter, so I know the style of an election return)," he said.
VERA Files was shown the envelopes containing the returns.
After the recordings of the wiretapped conversations between Arroyo and Garcillano on the cheating in the 2004 elections became public, the police commandos involved in the Batasan operation realized the value of the video and election returns in their hands.
Some of them said they all wanted to make public the evidence they had but feared this would endanger their lives and those of their families. They then thought of relocating abroad but they needed money to do that.
Sen. Loren Legarda, who was then protesting Noli de Castro's proclamation as vice president, said in an interview she met with Joel Pinawin, a first lieutenant in the Army Reserve Corps who acted as liaison for the SAF personnel. She was shown a video of ballot boxes being moved at the Batasan but said the video was rather dark.
"But they were selling it to me," she said.
Legarda does not remember the amount that was asked, but a source close to the SAF personnel said the group had hoped to raise P200 million, or P10 million each for the 20 people involved in the operation.
Said Legarda: "Where will I get the money? Kakatalo ko lang. Dinaya ako, malungkot, walang trabaho. Wala akong pera (I just lost. I was cheated, sad, jobless and penniless). I told them to do it for the country."
Election returns now with Comelec
The tampering and swapping of the election returns became evident when the Supreme Court, acting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal hearing Legarda's election protest, opened the ballot boxes for Nalindong and Taraka towns in Lanao del Sur.
The copies of the returns that were given to the Commission on Elections, National Citizens Movement for Free Elections and the dominant and minority parties showed opposition standard-bearer Fernando Poe Jr. and Legarda leading Arroyo and De Castro. But the returns in the ballot boxes retrieved from the Batasan showed the opposite.
Despite the discrepancies, the Supreme Court dismissed last January Legarda's petition, citing insufficient evidence of fraud.
Poe's suit against Arroyo before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET) was dismissed on March 29, 2005. The tribunal said his widow, actress Susan Roces, could not replace him as petitioner because "she would not immediately and directly benefit from the outcome should it be determined that the declared president did not truly get the highest number of votes."
The returns from the 2004 elections, including the fabricated ones, are no longer at the House of Representatives. Last February, shortly after he became speaker of the House, Rep. Prospero Nograles ordered the ballot boxes containing the returns moved from the South Wing to the Commission on Elections. The makeshift room where they were once stored has been dismantled.
Last March, former Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. called for an investigation of the 2005 switching of election returns at the Batasan.
Note: All photo captions and the additional photos of Gloria Arroyo, Fernando Poe Jr., Noli de Castro and Loren Legarda are by Jesusa Bernardo.
Sources: Vera Files. http://www.verafiles.org/
Link to Yuotube Video Testimony of Arsenio Rasalan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PdsjtXv3tA8