Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Newsbreak Story

Cheats Inc
By Miriam Grace A. Go
Newsbreak Assistant Managing Editor

Around this time last year, some of the political operators who helped President Arroyo win in the 2004 elections were called to work again. The month before, on Aug. 8, 2004, the President filed her reply (with a counter-protest) to the election protest of actor Fernando Poe Jr., her closest rival. Poe had alleged that Arroyo's votes were padded by more than one million and thus reversed the results of the election in her favor.

There were two ways Poe wanted the votes verified, both involving revisiting the election returns (ERs). The documents accomplished by teachers who man the polling precincts, the ER is the first step in consolidating the ballot count. In the absence of any manipulation, it should reflect the true number of votes. The figures from the ERs are then consolidated in the municipal statement of votes (SOVs), and the figures in the SOVs are totaled in city or provincial certificates of canvass (COCs).

For Luzon and the Visayas, Poe asked for the "ER-down" counter-checking. Through this approach the totals in the ERs would be compared with the ballots from the corresponding precincts. His camp was convinced that in the President's bailiwicks in these island groups, the figures in the ERs, SOVs, and COCs were consistent since these were supposedly accomplished before the elections, and were switched with the genuine forms before the local canvassing.

For Mindanao, he wanted the "ER-up" approach. The figures in the ERs would be added up again to check if the SOVs reflect the accurate totals, then the SOV figures will be totaled and checked against the figures in the COCs. (This is the move that President Arroyo's allies in Congress refused to do during the canvassing of presidential and vice presidential votes.) Poe was convinced that in this southern island, operators for President Arroyo left the ERs and SOVs alone and just tampered with the figures in the COCs.

In questioning or proving President Arroyo's victory, therefore, the election returns would be the most crucial documents.

Switching ERs

So starting September 2004, or three months after President Arroyo was proclaimed winner, a group hired by the administration reportedly started printing ERs that they intended to fill up and then switch with the genuine ERs that were in some of the ballot boxes being kept in the House of Representatives.

The target of the operation was ERs from the Muslim Mindanao area and surrounding provinces, where the alleged vote padding was done only in the COCs. Apparently, the ER-switching was meant to fix the records to pass future scrutiny. The figures in the new ERs, when added up, would now be consistent with the totals in the COCs.

The administration has repeatedly denied allegations of cheating.

But this is the story that six operators who worked for President Arroyo told NEWSBREAK in recent interviews. We sought them out as we tried to complete the picture of what actually happened during the presidential elections. Most of them are long-time NEWSBREAK sources, and had provided information in our series of reports on poll fraud last year.

They said that even if they revealed damaging information regarding the elections, they doubt if the opposition would really go out of its way to identify them and ask them to surface. "Some of them have utilized us in the past and they will be needing us in the future," one of them said. For security reasons, however, these sources shall remain unidentified.

One of the sources entered the room in the Batasan complex and participated in switching the fabricated ERs with the original ones in January and February this year. His participation was confirmed by two other sources, one of them a police officer who belonged to the group that planned this post-proclamation operation.

The other sources were privy to this Batasan operation because they belong to the small circle of operators who carried out the padding of Ms. Arroyo's votes before elections and after canvassing in various regions nationwide.

The President, her close advisers, and officials of her party have maintained that she won in the elections fair and square. If the accounts of her own operators are to be believed, however, the administration not only planned to cheat way before the May 10, 2004, elections, but continued tampering with the presidential votes even after Poe had died in December 2004, and just before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal dismissed with finality his protest in March 2005.

Testing the Waters in 2001

Three sources, who did special operations for the senatorial candidates of the People Power Coalition in 2001, said Ms. Arroyo and her strategists, as early as then, were already studying how vote-rigging could be done for her possible candidacy in 2004. At the time, she had just assumed the unfinished term of ousted President Joseph Estrada, and was therefore eligible to run to get her own mandate.

On May 18, 2001, the Friday after the senatorial elections, President Arroyo reportedly met with election lawyer Roque Bello, a retired regional director of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) in his 60s who is known in political circles to have the sophistication and the right contacts within the poll body to influence the votes to favor whoever his principal is. We were able to reach Bello on his cell phone last August 2, but he declined to give an interview.

In that 2001 meeting, the President was supposed to have been given Bello the orders to make sure Ralph Recto would win a full six-year term, to prevent Francis Pangilinan's votes from being shaven, and to keep hardline opposition candidates from winning.

What the President actually wanted from Bello at the time was to effect a 13-0 sweep for her slate, one of the sources said. The President, he disclosed, was apparently aware of how Bello was said to have achieved for former President Ferdinand Marcos's slate the 21-0 sweep during the Interim Batasang Pambansa elections in 1978. Still, some opposition candidates "who also operated" slipped into the winning circle.

"She realized [from the 2001 results] that [unlike during the dictatorship] it is no longer possible to carry out special operations for entire slates; individual candidates pay for operators. She learned that it would be easier if she focused on her votes alone," another operator said.

In early 2004, the President reportedly considered Bello and Garcillano for the two commissioners' seats about to be vacated at the Comelec. Garcillano was eventually named and on February 19 started a series of meetings with local Comelec officials at the residence of alleged jueteng lord Rodolfo "Bong" Pineda in Greenhills, San Juan. The meetings continued until March.

Bello, however, was reportedly tapped to devise a strategy to get a pre-determined number of votes for the President. One of those who worked in Bello's group said Bello proposed that genuine ballots be filled up before the elections and switched with the ballots that voters will cast at the precincts. He reportedly explained that working on the ballots would mean that the succeeding documents, from the ERs up to the COCs, would be "clean" and pass any scrutiny.

By April, the President's strategists decided to abandon Bello's proposal because they deemed that dealing with the ballots would be a lot costlier and would involve more risk of getting discovered. They left the ballot stage out of their strategy and opted for filling up genuine ERs, SOVs, and COCs with pre-determined numbers of votes. The forms were provided by the Comelec.

'Blackjack,' the Operator

The wholesale switching of pre-fabricated election forms was done in a few provinces in Luzon, particularly Ilocos Sur and the Arroyo's home province of Pampanga, and in the entire Visayas. The Visayas operation, particularly in Cebu, was considered more sophisticated because the administration effected an artificial dramatic increase of voters' population and registered "ghost precincts." This was to justify the lopsided share of votes that operators would enter into the prepared election forms.

The regional and provincial election officials whose cooperation was needed for this operation were planed in to Manila and billeted either at the Aloha Hotel or at the Grand Boulevard Hotel, both along Roxas Boulevard. The "production line," sources said, was in safehouses in the target provinces.

"Nobody would be too stupid to bring in those bulky ERs and COCs in the hotels," one of them said. He said that the safehouse in Cebu was rented for six months, but was occupied only from March to June 2004. The safehouse in Iloilo was located in a private subdivision. The forgers of signatures (called "golden arms") and those who thumbmarked the forms (called "pianistas") were flown in from Manila, the sources said.

The master operator, or the one who gave direction to negotiators and bagmen, for the three regions in the Visayas, was said to be Victor Rigor, who was a liaison between MalacaƱang and the then Ministry of Local Government during the Marcos regime. This means that Rigor, now in his mid-50s and known in the political circle as "Blackjack," was connected to the agency in the same years that Ronaldo Puno, Ed Soliman, and Gabriel Claudio were there. The three worked in Arroyo's campaign, either officially or in the shadow campaign teams. Puno is a strategist closely identified with the First Gentleman, and is now congressman of Antipolo City. Soliman is an undersecretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government. Claudio was the campaign manager of the President last year and is at present the presidential adviser on political affairs.

NEWSBREAK was unable to reach Rigor, but one of his operatives confirmed the information.

This operator said Rigor differentiates his work from cheating, which is "the changing of the election results." He said Rigor would maintain that what he does is just "influencing" the outcome of the election by a vote-delivery system.

Vote Padding

The Arroyo camp was confident that with the fixed votes coming mainly from the Visayas, the President would be able to win by at least one million votes. However, when the results from Poe's bailiwicks in Luzon came in, the President's strategists estimated that the votes could wipe out her margin from the Visayas.

Dagdag-bawas was then carried out in the Muslim region and a few neighboring provinces in Mindanao.

"They panicked, so Garcillano's operators just switched votes indiscriminately," one of the operators said. Since the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao was Poe's stronghold, the easiest way to pad Arroyo's votes there was to just switch her totals with Poe's in the COCs, the source pointed out.

Evidence in the custody of the opposition—including the fifth copy of the ERs that they were entitled to under the law, but which the police and military confiscated in a raid in Rizal—seem to support the accounts of the administration operators.

An administration strategist said that the top 11 provinces where the padding of votes for the President was maximized were (according to the percentage of votes they contributed, from the highest): Cebu, Pampanga, Iloilo, Negros Occidental, Bohol, Southern Leyte, Zamboanga del Sur, Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Sultan Kudarat, and Basilan. The padded votes amounted to 1.2 million.

Arroyo officially finished with 12,905,808 votes, against Poe's 11,782,232. If the alleged padding of votes is true, then her lead of 1.12 million is well within the margin provided by the operation.

The extent of the vote-padding acknowledged by the source is not very far from estimates that other camps have come up with.

Verzola Study

Roberto Verzola, an engineer teaching at the UP, published a study on the results of the 2004 elections based on the ER-based quick count of the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel). He said the ERs from Namfrel, although incomplete, already indicated a total vote padding of 837,454 in favor of President Arroyo—mostly from the "source" provinces acknowledged by the administration strategist.

Sixto Brillantes, who was Poe's counsel in the election protest, said that based on the evidence they have, the extent of the cheating was between 1.3 million to 1.5 million votes.

Verzola and Brillantes separately pointed out that when Namfrel stopped its quick count, Arroyo's lead over Poe was only about 600,000 votes. At the time, there were still 4 million votes from Poe's bailiwicks that had yet to be counted, and only 1 million uncounted votes from Arroyo's areas.

In a briefing with journalists in August, Verzola said that based on the Namfrel figures, President Arroyo could have won over Poe by only 77,000 votes, but only because the "highly questionable" votes from Central Visayas and the ARMM were included.

To Poe's camp, this means that if the votes from these two regions would be corrected, Poe could emerge the winner, with a lead of 200,000 to 300,000 votes over Ms. Arroyo.

So when Poe filed his protest, according to administration operators, the Arroyo camp intended to "correct" the incriminating ERs from Mindanao that were in the ballot boxes in Batasan. This was when Bello and his network of operators were again called in.

Clandestine Trips to Batasan

The operator from Bello's group said that the questioned Mindanao provinces involved 10,000 ERs, but 4,000 were "duly corrected" before these were sent to Manila during the canvassing. Using official paper from Comelec, they tried printing the 6,000 more ERs from September to November 2004.

He said "wastage resulted [because] the ERs could not be reproduced exactly as the ones done by Ernest Printing," referring to Comelec's official printer of ERs for last year's polls. They couldn't source a numbering machine, a Heidelberg similar to what Ernest Printing used.

In mid-December, however, a contact of Bello was able to "borrow" the numbering machine from Ernest Printing. The operator said they printed the ERs during the Christmas week. The ERs were accomplished by "golden arms" and "pianistas" again.

The source said they made "four clandestine entries" into the Batasan in January and February 2005. He said a police general helped them in the operation. Policemen guarded the room of ballot boxes. He said the guards "looked the other way" when they entered, which was either late Sunday evening or early Monday morning.

The last entry, the source said, was made the weekend before Valentine's Day. The police official who facilitated their entries was named to another government agency immediately after the operation.

As election campaigns go, the operators said, they consider their work completed once their principal has been proclaimed. After the proclamation comes the "cleanup," when they close headquarters, abandon safehouses, recall those assigned in the field, and hopefully count victory bonuses.

For their biggest candidate last year, they noted, their "cleanup" was of a different kind.