IN THE May 2004 elections, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo maintained a campaign organization so elaborate it even included a group dubbed “Special Ops,” an infamous abbreviation for “special operations” that many equate with “dirty tricks,” or cruder still, poll cheating.
What the “Special Ops” group under then presidential liaison officer for political affairs Jose Ma. ‘Joey’ Rufino was tasked to do—or did exactly—was not known to the president’s official campaign advisers. Up to now, many of them are still clueless about that group’s tasks.
Former presidential peace adviser Teresita ‘Ging’ Deles can only say that Rufino’s activities were never taken up in the meetings of the executive council Arroyo convened to take charge of plotting and directing her campaign. Deles was part of that council, also referred to as the advisory council.
“We thought we were running the campaign,” says another council member, former social welfare secretary Corazon ‘Dinky’ Soliman. “We thought we were in the inner circle of the box.”
But since the wiretapped conversations between Arroyo and Commission on Elections (Comelec) commissioner Virgilio Garcillano became public on June 6, and the subsequent sworn statement issued on August 1 by Garcillano nephew and Rufino subaltern Michaelangelo ‘Louie’ Zuce, Deles and Soliman now know better. Quips Soliman: “Inside the box was a smaller box.”
Apparently working alongside Arroyo’s official campaign team was an informal network that included Garcillano, Comelec field personnel, the police and the military, freelance political operators, and perhaps a banana-chips processor and assorted businesspeople in Mindanao and elsewhere. Said to be on top of it all was First Gentleman Mike Arroyo, ably assisted by now Antipolo Rep. Ronaldo ‘Ronnie Puno, a veteran campaign strategist who was part of the Marcos, Ramos, and Estrada campaigns.
These “backroom operators,” as one ex-Palace insider describes the motley team, made up several groups whose functions ranged from the seemingly mundane, such as quick-counting votes, to more questionable tasks that could have had electoral manipulation among them.
These parallel operations seem to come as little surprise to those who have worked for the president, given what some describe as her “dualistic” nature. A former aide notes that during the canvassing, Arroyo was going around the Carmelite convents, including those in Bacolod and Iloilo, even as she was then placing “improper” calls to Garcillano. “It’s like Jekyll and Hyde,” says the ex-aide.
At the height of the political crisis, even her Cabinet split into two groups: one concerned with the president’s “survival at all cost,” the other pushing for “reforms.”
Soliman, a former Arroyo confidante, says of the president’s personality: “She was exposed and has accepted the practices of traditional politics such as paybacks, payups, operations of dirty tricks. At the same time she also believed in instituting reforms in the economic, social and governance spheres using principles of transparency, accountability, and service to the people. She believed that both worlds can exist in one person and the dissonance and disconnect will not clash in her and in her actions.”
Soliman says that in a crisis, such as now, when the two parts of the president become dissonant, Arroyo is more comfortable with traditional politicians and reverts to the old world of wheeling-dealing and compromises that she knows so well.
The official council
When she was with her executive council during the campaign, it was the no-nonsense technocrat Gloria Arroyo that presided over the meetings. The council shared with the president the top rung of her official campaign organization. From January 2004 to the elections, the council met weekly to hear and analyze Palace pollster Pedro ‘Junie’ Laylo’s report on the province-by-province surveys he was running. It identified strategies for Arroyo in areas where her showing was weak, to turn “swing” votes among the undecided voters to her favor, and to maintain her showing in places where she was likely to win.
Former President Fidel V. Ramos co-chaired the meetings with Arroyo. Aside from Ramos, council members included Deles and Soliman (both of whom represented civil society), campaign manager Gabriel Claudio, and campaign spokesman Michael Defensor. Also part of the council were the leaders of the political parties that made up the administration K-4 (Koalisyon ng Katapatan at Karanasan sa Kinabukasan) coalition: Speaker Jose de Venecia and then Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita of the Lakas-CMD, Senate President Franklin Drilon and then Batanes Rep. Florencio Abad of the Liberal Party, Sen. Manuel Villar of the Nacionalista Party, and National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales of the Partidong Demokratiko-Sosyalista ng Pilipinas.
Businessman and Philippine National Oil Company president Paul Aquino occasionally sat in the council meetings in his capacity as K-4’s consultant. Then presidential adviser for media and ecclesiastical affairs Conrado ‘Dodie’ Limcaoco, who was in charge of the K-4 senatorial slate, was also in the meetings.
Initially, the council met at the Palace. But when Cabinet meetings became irregular in the runup to the polls, the council would get together at the old Macapagal family residence in Forbes Park, Makati. Drilon also took over in the latter part of the campaign, says Deles.
At the Cabinet, then Executive Secretary and now Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo was in charge of how members were to campaign for the president. Cabinet members, for example, were told to make a pitch for Arroyo when they distributed Philhealth cards. “We asked if we could campaign and they said we could legally because we were political appointees,” says Soliman.
On election day onward, Cabinet members fanned out to the provinces to gather the provincial certifi cates of canvass and the accompanying statements of votes. This time they took their cues from then residential legal counsel and now Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz, who had set up a quick-count center at the basement of the Olympia Towers in Makati.
Cruz also headed a legal panel assembled for the president’s election bid. Operating out of Olympia Towers as well, the panel included former local governments undersecretary and now Government Corporate Counsel Agnes Devanadera, ex-Comelec Commissioner Manuel Gorospe, and election-law experts Romulo Makalintal and Al Agra.
A big winning margin
Like any candidate, Arroyo wanted to win. That much was clear to all the president’s men and women. Actually, says an ex-Cabinet member, “she was obsessed with the idea of winning. She (couldn’t) stand a loss….(She) felt she had to redeem her father (the late president Diosdado Macapagal) who lost in his reelection (bid).”
That the president should win by at least a million votes, however, was never made known to most members of her Cabinet. Yet it apparently was common knowledge among the other groups working for her.
A handler of a K-4 senatorial candidate says that two weeks before the May 10, 2004 elections, a campaign operative had said the president would win by 800,000 votes. “Plantsado na raw (It was already arranged),” the handler says. That statement would make sense to the handler only after the “Hello, Garci” tapes controversy broke out.
More interestingly, however, is that other campaign insiders say First Gentleman Mike Arroyo, Kampi stalwart Ronaldo ‘Ronnie’ Puno, and a top government official met regularly at the Wack Wack Country Club before the campaign to discuss ways to ensure not only the president’s victory, but also a huge winning margin.
As campaign manager, presidential political adviser Gabriel Claudio was the K-4’s public face in last year’s elections. But those with the administration party say it was Mike Arroyo who was the de facto campaign manager, and that he got a lot of help from Puno.
At the peak of the political crisis, the president herself told some Cabinet members that she had called in the Antipolo congressman to help. But during the campaign, he had no official role in the Arroyo camp. “He was never mentioned, he was never seen,” says Deles. “I would even deny his involvement in the president’s campaign. Even the First Gentleman was not visible.”
Some Palace insiders, however, say Puno was working quietly behind the scenes with the First Gentleman and had recommended “unorthodox” means to clinch Arroyo’s huge winning margin over her opponent, actor Fernando Poe Jr.
A campaign strategist who was part of the K-4 coalition also recalls a K-4 lawyer assuring them that they were certain to get help. “The same operations as Sulo Hotel and Byron Hotel,” the strategist was told, apparently in reference to Puno’s operations at Sulo Hotel in Quezon City when he helped Ramos’s 1992 presidential campaign and at Byron Hotel in Mandaluyong when he backed Joseph Estrada’s presidential bid.
The strategist says, “DILG (the Department of Interior and Local Governments that Puno headed under the Estrada presidency) people in the provinces were used as listening posts. They even knew who drug and jueteng money were funding.”
Both Claudio and Puno were with the Ramos campaign. In a 2003 interview with PCIJ, Puno scoffed at allegations that he was the architect of Ramos’s supposed dirty-tricks department based at Sulo Hotel. He said he delivers because he has the science, citing his experience a campaign consultant for the U.S. lobbying fi rm Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly, which has strong links to the Republican Party.
In 2002, Puno supposedly set up camp again at Byron Hotel to build a comprehensive elections database for Arroyo. A K-4 campaign strategist says Puno disbanded the group when President Arroyo announced on Rizal Day in 2002 she was not running.
But he quickly got the group back together in April 2003, long before the president announced her candidacy. The strategy, this source says, was to use the database to pinpoint places where Arroyo was strong and employ “all means” to increase her votes.
Malaya columnist and opposition stalwart Lito Banayo, quoting Loren Legarda’s electoral recount consultants, says Byron Hotel was the “headquarters of choice in the 2004 electoral experience of a coven of prefabricators of election returns” used to ensure the president’s landslide victory in Pampanga, Cebu, Iloilo, and Bohol.
One member of the K-4 campaign says Puno oversaw the Mindanao canvassing after being proclaimed Antipolo City’s congressman. This source asserts that “Ronnie Puno played a big role,” although he was “distracted because he was running at the same time.”
“Consultations” with cash
Apparently more focused on their “tasks” were Garcillano and his cohorts. Indeed, Garcillano already seemed to know what he would be doing when he applied for the post of Comelec commissioner. In his Nov. 11, 2003 letter to the president, Garcillano reminded Arroyo that he was among those approached by her husband when she ran and topped the 1995 senatorial polls.
He also underlined his role in monitoring and protecting the votes of the Lakas senatorial candidates in 2001. Garcillano was formerly the Region 10 (Northern Mindanao) Comelec director. Sen. Aquilino Pimentel called him a “dagdag bawas” (vote-padding and shaving) operator, but he was named elections commissioner anyway in February 2004.
The burly Zuce says he was instrumental in bringing Garcillano to Rufino’s — and consequently the president’s — attention. In his sworn statement, Zuce says Garcillano, with Rufino’s blessings, in 2002 organized three “consultation meetings” with Mindanao-based Comelec officials in Lanao del Norte and General Santos City during which he solicited their support for the president’s candidacy and gave out cash ranging from P5,000 to P20,000.
A year later, says Zuce, Mindanao regional directors and provincial election supervisors met at the Grand Boulevard Hotel on Roxas Boulevard to discuss the president’s candidacy. Envelopes containing P17,000 each were distributed to the participants.
On Jan. 10, 2004, Garcillano, through Rufino’s office, organized yet another meeting with 23 Mindanao election officials, again at the Grand Boulevard.
This time, each Comelec official got P25,000, Zuce says. But Zuce’s most damning allegation so far is that President Arroyo hosted dinner for 27 Mindanao-based Comelec officials at her La Vista residence in Quezon City four months before the elections, and that envelopes containing P30,000 each were distributed by Lilia ‘Baby’ Pineda, wife of jueteng lord Rodolfo ‘Bong’ Pineda, to her guests in her presence. Zuce, who was invited to the dinner and got an envelope himself, says Garcillano and former Isabela Gov. Faustino Dy were also present. Zuce told the PCIJ as well as the Senate later that the president hosted another dinner that same month for about 20 Comelec officials from Luzon and the Visayas.
Baby Pineda again distributed money to the officials before they left Arroyo’s home. Malacañang has issued no categorical denial about the dinners, although the president herself has said, “Ang masasabi ko walang nagbibigay ng suhol sa harap ko (All I can say is no one gives out bribes in front of me).”
The now ailing Rufino’s own statement said, “I and my office have never been involved in influencing, much less bribing, Comelec officials to support Lakas-NUCD candidates including President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.” Comelec officials led by Region 4 Director Juanito ‘Johnny’ Icaro, who allegedly distributed the envelopes at La Vista, have likewise rebutted Zuce’s charges.
But Comelec regional director Helen A. Flores, who was not in any of the meetings Zuce said took place from 2002 to 2004, says Garcillano, through his security officer and nephew Capt. Valentino Lopez, had offered her P50 million to rig the 2004 polls. Flores says she spurned the offer. Four days before election day, she was relieved as regional director for the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao and moved to Region 9 (Western Mindanao). Lopez, now with the Army Headquarters Support Group, denies involvement in the bribery attempt.
Zuce’s Mindanao trips
On August 10, Capt. Marlon Mendoza, a former Intelligence Service officer assigned as Garcillano’s chief security officer during the polls, surfaced to say he flew to Mindanao on May 11, 2004 on Garcillano’s order, and accompanied Zuce when the latter visited Lanao del Norte and Cotabato City. Mendoza told the Senate he saw Zuce handing Lanao provincial election supervisor Ray Sumalipao a “large amount of cash in an envelope” on May 12. A Comelec director in Cotabato City also received cash from Zuce on May 14, he said.
Mendoza said that by May 16, he and Zuce were in Iligan City. As their group was having lunch in a restaurant there, he heard someone say, “Huling binibilang ang balota sa area ng Lanao del Norte at Lanao del Sur para makakuha ng dagdag (The ballots from Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur will be the last to be counted so we can increase these) if GMA will lose in other areas in the country.”
In a recorded May 29 conversation with Garcillano, the president had asked pointedly, “So will I still lead by more than one million (votes)?” The commissioner replied that her rival’s count was high but “mag-compensate man po sa Lanao ‘yan (that will be compensated in Lanao).” At the time, the counting of votes from seven towns in Lanao del Sur’s 39 provinces was far from over.
Zuce says his uncle sent him to Mindanao to coordinate with the Comelec personnel there. He says the region’s “special operations” headed by Ernesto ‘Butch’ Paquingan, a political consultant based in Cagayan de Oro City, helped in ensuring Arroyo’s victory. Zuce says Paquingan was reporting directly to then Executive Secretary Romulo. Paquingan has called Zuce a liar. Zuce, he added, told him the opposition had offered him P4 million to P5 million to testify against Arroyo.
But an old hand in electoral campaigns says Zuce worked with Paquingan in previous polls, including the 1998 elections. Many candidates for national position also engaged Paquingan’s services to help them win in Mindanao, says the campaign veteran.
In his Senate testimony, Mendoza said Garcillano sent him to Cagayan de Oro on May 11, 2004 as security officer for Zuce, Paquingan, “King James,” and a certain “Jun L. Bamboo” of the Presidential Management Services. He identifi ed Paquingan as “a consultant related to DFA Secretary Romulo” and “King James” as George Goking, whom he said was Arroyo’s close friend.
In the “Hello, Garci” tapes, there are two recorded conversations between the Comelec commissioner and Zuce. The first was on May 28, 2004 when Garcillano asked Zuce and Goking, a Cagayan de Oro businessman who is also a director of the Philippine Amusements and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor), to come to his house for a meeting. Zuce, who confirmed to the Senate that he was among those recorded in the “Hello, Garci” tapes, called the commissioner again on June 16 to say he and “George” (apparently Goking) were at Harrison Plaza. In both conversations, Zuce addressed Garcillano as “’cle,” short for uncle.
The campaign veteran says Mindanao is home to many freelance operators, including businessmen, who help candidates by buying votes for them. Zuce had been Garcillano’s conduit to some of these key players, according to the source.
“(The operators) join Senate party coalitions if not hired by a senatorial candidate,” says the campaign expert. “Then they moonlight toward the fi nish line either buying votes or doing presidential campaigns. After the campaign, they are hired as political officers.”
The campaign veteran says the operators have long been in existence; all a candidate has to do is tap into the existing syndicates and networks.
Businessman Rodolfo Galang, however, says it is also important to ensure the “cooperation” of local officials and political rivals for a candidate to win. Galang says he volunteered to do this for the president in parts of Mindanao during the 2004 elections.
Galang, who co-owns a banana chips processing plant in Maguindanao with Paulino Ejercito, brother of ousted President Estrada, says he decided to help the Arroyo camp because he believed the country would not benefit from a Poe presidency. Galang had also been eyeing a slot machine franchise from the Pagcor. He never got it.
Soon after the polls, Galang changed his mind about Arroyo and executed on June 21, 2004 an affidavit he later filed with the Office of the Ombudsman. His affidavit charged the Arroyo administration with buying off local officials and opposition candidates in Romblon and certain areas in Mindanao under “Oplan Mercury.” These were Lanao del Sur, Davao City, Davao del Norte, Maguindanao, Cotabato City, Davao Oriental, South Cotabato, Davao del Sur, Sulu, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Tawi-Tawi, Samal, Compostela, Sarangani, Zamboanga Sibugay, and Bukidnon.
Galang says his conduit to the president was Limcaoco. A March 28, 2004 memorandum for Arroyo purportedly coursed through Limcaoco identifi ed the political leaders who Galang said he could convince to pledge their support for the president, paving the way for the conversion of about a third of Poe’s projected votes to Arroyo’s. He estimated this roughly to be 1.6 million of the 5.5 million votes in the “Mercury” areas.
The “conversion,” according to Galang, could be made by using the carrot of fund releases to convince local government officials to mobilize support for Arroyo. Thus, in his affidavit, Galang implicated the officials who made those fund releases possible: Nena Valdez, the president’s former Assumption Convent classmate who reportedly took charge of the funds released for Oplan Mercury; then Agriculture Secretary Luis Lorenzo for approving the release of the fertilizers given to Mindanao officials; then National Food Authority director Arthur Yap for the rice distributed to them; Pagcor chair Ephraim Genuino for the capital equipment that was also given out; and then Health Secretary Manuel Dayrit for the medicine. (See “Running on Taxpayer’s Money.”)
Before the March 2004 memo, Galang says he submitted to the president, again through Limcaoco, analyses of the political situation these places, including informal surveys assessing the chances of Arroyo and local candidates. The document on Maguindanao projected Poe would win 70 percent of the votes, or about 284,310. “Oplan Mercury” would pad the votes to ensure that Arroyo got 262,2440, leaving Poe with only 43,740 votes. (PCIJ has copies of the Maguindanao document and the March 2004 memo.)
Right after Galang disclosed “Oplan Mercury” in a press conference last year, Limcaoco dismissed his allegations as hearsay and baseless. He said Galang had volunteered to campaign for K-4 but “he was never my employee or political operator. Nor did we authorize or support any illegal operation.”
Former Cabinet members say it was unlikely Limcaoco had time to mount such an operation. They say taking care of the K-4 senatorial candidates was a full-time job.
Still, the president did post one of her biggest winning margins in the congressional count for Maguindanao, garnering 193,938 votes against Poe’s 59,892. The opposition considers the outcomes in eight towns there as highly dubious. Poe scored zero in Ampatuan and Datu Piang, and got as little as five to 174 votes in six other towns.
In their June 6 conversation, the president sought Garcillano’s assurance that the documents in Maguindanao were consistent. The commissioner had replied that Maguindanao wasn’t really much of a problem.
Four days later, Arroyo expressed concern over the local canvassing in South Upi town, where Comelec had proclaimed different winners. But she told Garcillano that the important thing was “hindi madamay ‘yung sa taas (we don’t get affected at the top).” The commissioner assured her that he had control there.
A shadow quick count
Like the other Cabinet members gathering certificates of canvass, Deles brought the documents she had collected to presidential legal counsel Cruz, who ran the K-4’s official quick-count center at Olympia Towers. But that was not the only Arroyo quick-count in town. K-4 campaign handlers now speak of another done with the help of the Philippine National Police (PNP), then under Gen. Hermogenes Ebdane. Now public works secretary, Ebdane’s name was mentioned in the “Hello, Garci” tapes.
The PNP appeared to have instructed some of its members to get copies of precinct-level election returns. These were forwarded to the K-4 headquarters for senatorial candidates and their handlers to monitor. On the count’s third day, however, the Senate tally was canceled, forcing the candidates to get their own precinct count.
A consultant of a K-4 senatorial candidate was told the PNP received word to send the results straight to Malacañang. The consultant was then asked to call two phone numbers to check the count’s progress: one number was a phone at the Olympia Towers; the other was picked up by someone at the Department of National Defense or DND.
Soliman recalls that as election day neared, then Defense Secretary Ermita increasingly took the lead among the Cabinet members in the president’s campaign. But Deles says Arroyo had stressed the need for Ermita, a Lakas regional chairman known for his good political instincts, to stay “behind the scene.” Neither Deles nor Soliman, though, remembers any instructions given to the DND.
The K-4 candidate’s consultant, however, says ex-elections commissioner Gorospe, who reportedly had his own group besides being in the K-4 legal team, was often at the DND during the counting. A former DND staffmember also says access to the Defense Intelligence Service Group (DISG) compound at the back of the DND building in Camp Aguinaldo was prohibited during the elections. The DISG primarily provides the security escort of the defense secretary and pursues intelligence projects.
Heavily tinted vehicles were seen coming in and out of the DISG, even at late nights and early hours in the morning, according to the ex-DND insider. New computers were moved there, along with Arroyo election paraphernalia. Ermita’s head executive assistant Alfredo Bunye, the presidential spokesman’s brother, was said to have held office at the DISG during this period as well.
Requests from local goverment officials for election materials were directed to the DISG. On occasion, DND soldiers and personnel were used to distribute the materials to requesting parties, says the former DND staff member.
Fact-finding bodies and antidotes
After the “Hello, Garci” tapes revealed what appears to be military involvement in manipulating last year’s elections, the military formed a fact-finding board to investigate four senior officers mentioned in the conversations: Lt. Gen. Hermogenes Esperon of the Special Operations Command; Maj. Gen. Gabriel Habacon of the 1st Infantry Division; Brig. Gen. Francisco Gudani, assistant superintendent of the Philippine Military Academy; and retired lieutenant general Roy Kyamko.
During the 2004 polls, Kyamko was Southern Command chief. Esperon was the deputy chief of Task Force HOPE, Gudani the former chief of Task Force Ranao, and Habacon chief of Task Force Comet.
In a statement last August 4, a group calling itself “The Young Officers Union of the new generation (YOUng)” sought the investigation of other officers for their supposed part in the alleged electoral fraud: Brig. Gen. Nehemias Pajarito, chief of the Army’s 104th Brigade based in Marawi City; Brig. Gen. Nelson Allaga, 3rd Marine Brigade commander; Navy Capt. Feliciano Angue, then head of Naval Task Force 62 operating in Tawi-Tawi and now Navy operations chief; Marine lieutenant colonels Melvin Pelonia and Elmer Estopin based in Tawi-Tawi and Sulu, respectively; Army Colonels Rey Arde and Aminkandra Undug; and a certain Colonel Pereno and Captain Perez.
It’s uncertain if there was a military component to the so-called “Antidote Group,” which a senator’s adviser fi rst heard of weeks before the polls. While fretting over the absence of a K-4 senatorial campaign plan, the adviser was assured by a presidential consultant, “Don’t worry, there’s an antidote.”
Rufino also referred to an “Antidote Group” in his marginal note to Arroyo when he endorsed Garcillano as elections commissioner. Wrote Rufino: “He (Garcillano) will be a great asset to you. He has proven track record and can deliver! Part…The Antidote Group.” The senator’s adviser says the Antidote Group was often offered as the solution whenever the campaign had problems. Whoever made up the group remains a mystery to the adviser, but its purpose has since become clear. “Our own quick count showed some election returns did not match the certificates of canvass,” says the adviser. But many of these somehow got “cured.”