POSTSCRIPT / August 15, 2006 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Using illegally bought poll computers is a trap

LOBBY & PR: Some boys of President Gloria Arroyo seem to have been inveigled into the campaign to have the Commission on Elections use the automatic counting machines bought by the poll body for the 2004 elections under a void, fraudulent contract.

Key sectors that might object to lending legitimacy to the irregular purchase by using the 1,991 machines in the 2007 elections are being wooed assiduously. The lobby and PR (public relations) targets reportedly include Malacanang and the media.

The ulterior idea is that once the idle machines are used, the legal and psychological objections would readily die down, and criminal charges against those behind the illegal purchase could easily be ignored or dismissed.

The legal trap is so manifest that one wonders how many million blinders have been plastered on the eyes of salivating officials supporting the campaign.

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PALACE HAND: It is alarming that some Malacanang officials are floating the idea that it would be practical, and economical, to use the mothballed equipment instead of buying new ones.

They want us to gloss over the fact that the Supreme Court no less has ruled, and reiterated, that the P1.3-billion purchase contract under an election automation program was void from the start, illegal and unenforceable.

The high court has ordered the Comelec to return the machines to the supplier MegaPacific; the Solicitor General to recover the money paid to the supplier; and the Ombudsman to determine the criminal liability of poll officials and others who had a hand in the deal.

The tribunal said Comelec officials violated not only the law but also the poll body’s own bidding rules and procedures in awarding the contract to a loose consortium of suppliers that was not among the bidders. The court also noted that the computers did not comply with bid specifications.

Instead of obeying the Supreme Court and going after the crooks, the administration now appears to favor using the computers, and thereby legitimize the illegal purchase and let the fast-break artists get away.

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ABALOS EXCLUDED: Ill intent is seen in the hurried acceptance of the equipment and the rush payment by the Comelec despite the SC order. The hurried “kaliwaan” (exchange of goods and payments) suggests there could have been collusion to subvert the court order.

Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos, head of the body that consummated the deal, accepted the delivery and approved payment, consistently defended the actions of the poll body. There were also times when he crossed the line to defend even the supplier.

Insiders say the boss of MegaPacific is a good friend of Abalos, allegedly a sukiwho has been a supplier of the poll body for years and who presumably decided to diversify into computerized poll equipment upon learning of the mega-project.

No wonder many people were scandalized when the Ombudsman excluded team leader Abalos from the list of those who must face charges.

Who is protecting Abalos and why?

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LAME EXCUSE: In a privilege speech last Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel raised his lonely voice to denounce the conspiracy to condition the public mind to accept the fraud under the pretext of automating next year’s elections.

When the high court nullified the contract on Jan. 13, 2004, Pimentel said, records showed that Comelec had already paid MegaPacific a total of P1,248,949,088, including P856,914,088 for the counting machines.

Noting that the actual cost of the 1,991 computers was P520,810,158, Pimentel said there appeared to have been an overprice of P306,104,646.

Chairman Abalos lamely explained that they could not return the equipment, because MegaPacific refused to accept them. Puede ba yon? To Abalos, puede!

The Comelec not only rushed payment to the favored supplier, but also tried to use the computers for voters’ registration to advance the transaction one more step beyond recall.

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ESTOPPEL: Pimentel said it was the height of irresponsibility for Malacanang officials to support Comelec’s recommendation to use the machines in the 2007 elections.

He noted that the Solicitor General, who is under the Office of the President, had been directed by the Supreme Court to take steps to recover the money paid to MegaPacific.

The minority leader said that the moment the computers were used in the next elections, the government would be estopped from prosecuting those involved and from recovering the amount paid, overprice and all.

He said: “I vigorously dispute the premises that Mr. Abalos and lawyers of Comelec officials are foisting upon our people that there is nothing wrong if we now use the automated counting machines in the possession of Comelec, because it is difficult to return them for the reason that the supplier could no longer be found.

“That would be tantamount to allowing a brazen ripoff of this government with our eyes wide open and allow these people to sing a song on the way to the bank.”

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SENATE BILL: A bill has been filed by Sen. Richard Gordon, meanwhile, to automate next year’s elections. He and senators Mar Roxas and Sergio Osmena III were assigned to write a draft acceptable to the majority. The plan is to pass the measure in two weeks.

Sen. Franklin Drilon said the computers to be acquired under the bill would be different from the 1,991 counting machines that the Supreme Court had directed the Comelec to return.

He said the supplemental budget for 2006 already includes an outlay of P1.2 billion for buying new automatic poll counting machines.

The main bone of contention in the chamber is whether the machines would be used on the precinct level to tally the election returns or on the municipal level to consolidate the returns and produce a certificate of canvass.

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INITIATIVE: The Sigaw ng Bayan and the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP) are set to file a petition for the Comelec to call for a plebiscite on charter changes proposed by People’s Initiative, one of the modes for constitutional amendments.

Advocacy Commission insiders claim that they are over the hump in Makati (where the mayor is an opposition bigwig), and that Comelec has already verified the signatures representing more than 1/3 of some 180,000 registered voters in Makati’s two districts.

The call is for a shift from the present presidential-bicameral to a parliamentary-unicameral system.

With this development, is there a need for President Arroyo and Speaker Jose de Venecia to woo the Senate into approving the resolution converting Congress into a constituent assembly?

Will the Senate allow People’s Initiative that could lead to its death? As both houses of Congress will be abolished by the proposed amendment, senators may have to rethink their positions.

Will the May 2007 elections be for members of the unicameral National Assembly, no longer for the bicameral Congress, once Comelec calls for a plebiscite and charter revisions are ratified in a plebiscite?

There is the prior question, however, over whether People’s Initiative is good for amendments but not for the total revision or replacement of the Constitution.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 15, 2006)

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