on 20 October 2005
Did Mike Arroyo Fund Postelection "Special Operations" in Lanao?
by BOOMA B. CRUZ
POONA BAYABAO, Lanao del Sur — "Fernando Poe, Fernando Poe." With clenched fists and his right hand raised, octogenarian Hadji Mohammad Monte repeated the name of the late action star like a mantra when asked whom he voted for in the last presidential elections. He insisted that Poe was number one among the residents of this town where the late king of Philippine movies was — and still is — very popular.
In fact, town residents cheered Monte on as they shouted, "FPJ! FPJ!" When asked, six of every 10 residents here claimed they had voted for Fernando Poe Jr. Only a few women admitted going for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, but even they conceded that there was no way the movie icon could lose in a clean election here.
In the certificate of canvass that reached Congress, President Arroyo got 4,700 votes in Poona Bayabao, a fifth-class municipality in Lanao del Sur that is a 45-minute drive from Marawi City. All her rivals, including Poe, each scored a big, fat zero.
"What we saw in the election returns was that each candidate had votes," said Nasser Dibansa, principal of the Bansayan Elementary School and head of the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) 2004 Operation Quick Count here. "Not only Fernando Poe, but also (Eddie) Villanueva — every candidate had votes. Since I was born, I have not experienced (anything) like that, that a candidate would get zero."
Because of the improbability of the poll results, Poona Bayabao has been cited as an incontrovertible proof of massive cheating in Mindanao, particularly Lanao del Sur.
These charges were bolstered by the controversial testimony at the Senate of Brig. Gen. Francisco Gudani, who was stationed in Lanao del Sur during the 2004 elections. Last month, Gudani told the Senate that he had witnessed and observed "all kinds of cheating from start to finish" in the province.
When "Probe" visited Lanao del Sur recently, it found further proof: Two political operators, Lomala Macadaub and Abdul Wahab Batugan of the Lanao del Sur Unity Movement for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who said that their group was behind alleged dagdag-bawas (vote-padding and -shaving) operations in the province, as well as in Sultan Kudarat, Sulu and Tawi Tawi. They also said the funds for their operations came from First Gentleman Jose Miguel 'Mike' Arroyo.
These operators say that their tasks included talking to, and paying off, elections officers to reverse the ratio of the votes in the president's favor. Sometimes, they admitted, they altered the certificates of canvass (COCs) themselves, thus explaining the disparity in the results in the election returns and the COCs.
Lawyer Jesus Santos, spokesperson of the First Gentleman, denied his client masterminded and financed any rigging of the presidential polls. While he was not aware of the day-to-day activities of his client, Santos said, he was sure the First Gentleman was not very active in the President's 2004 campaign. But he conceded, "He helped in a way. His wife was president and candidate. If he could help other people, the more he would help someone who happens to be his wife."
While the charges of election fraud in Lanao were raised even last year, these were resurrected with Gudani's testimony. What bolsters the general's allegations, however, is not so much a smoking gun but a "smoking" tape. The general, who retired earlier this month, had been the subject of one of the wiretapped conversations between President Arroyo and then Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, who had complained about Gudani's supposed intransigence in Lanao.
Two days after the elections, Gudani was suddenly relieved of his Lanao post. By May 29, the commissioner was telling the president on the phone that while Poe was still leading, "mag-compensate po sa Lanao 'yan (we will compensate in Lanao)."
Based on the certificates of canvass submitted to the Commission on Elections (Comelec), President Arroyo trounced her closest rival, Poe, in Lanao del Sur with 158,748 votes as against 50,107 votes. But the ratio was different in the Namfrel reports, which are based on election returns (ERs). The terminal report of Namfrel's national headquarters, which tallied less than 50 percent of ERs, had Poe leading the president, 42,374 to 32,389. Namfrel's Lanao chapter, on the other hand, was able to complete 77 percent of the count in 38 of the province's 39 towns. Poe was leading Arroyo, 67,989 to 52,633.
Hadji Abdullah Dalidig, Namfrel provincial chairman, said that the 2004 presidential polls was the "worst and dirtiest" of the five elections he has monitored in Lanao del Sur. "What was done to the votes at the presidential level, even grade one children would know the votes of the other candidates were sabotaged," he said.
Dalidig's suspicions were confirmed by Macadaub and Batugan, both members of the Lanao del Sur Unity Movement, then headed by Nagamura Moner, the Shari'a court judge of Wao-Bumbaran. It was Moner who founded the movement and launched it in April 2004, they said.
But while Macadaub said the president's husband provided the funds for their operations, he denied Gudani's allegation that the First Gentleman went around Iligan in a helicopter two weeks before the polls with a stash of P500 million. "It's not true that the First Gentleman was going around in a plane, chopper actually," he said. "The truth is that it was our boss who was in the chopper — Judge Moner."
Moner supposedly went around Lanao del Sur, Sulu, Sultan Kudarat and Tawi Tawi from May 14 to 17 to distribute what was allegedly money from Mike Arroyo to his men, who were in turn tasked to deliver the funds to election officers "para baligtarin ang COCs (to reverse the certificates of canvass)," said Macadaub.
According to Michaelangelo Zuce, Garcillano's nephew who testified in the Senate last August, the Lanao del Sur votes were crucial to the administration, as they were needed to offset Poe's yawning lead in Misamis Oriental, where the action star was ahead of Mrs. Arroyo by as much as 70,000 votes.
In the meantime, Santos, Mike Arroyo's lawyer, asserted that his client spent most of his time in Manila before, during and after the elections. Santos said it was presidential liaison officer for political affairs Jose Ma. "Joey" Rufino who was in charge of the Mindanao leg of the president's election bid.
But newspaper accounts of the presidential campaign showed that Mike Arroyo was at least in Cagayan de Oro City, where he was the guest of honor at the launch of the Lanao del Sur Unity Movement for President Arroyo in April 2004. It was there where Macadaub and Batugan supposedly met the First Gentleman, who promised them a "better life."
The launch was attended by a number of Lanao mayoralty candidates from the opposition who shifted to the administration camp reportedly upon Moner's prodding. Even then, there were speculations that money flowed during the event, but this was denied by the First Gentleman and Moner.
Reached for comment in Iligan City, Moner neither confirmed nor denied the recent allegations of his men. He said the two were his former partners at the Moner and Associates Consultancy and Shari'a Law Office of Iligan City and are active officers of the Lanao Unity Movement.
"Not only are they former partners but some, or many, of them are my relatives...they seek my advice and I have always told them that number one, we should be patient and number two, we should stand for the truth," Moner said.
A defeated gubernatorial candidate in 1998, Moner admitted converting his own political machinery into a movement to support President Arroyo. He said he planned to run for governor last year but was convinced by the First Gentleman to just help the president.
"I was persuaded by the First Gentleman through Alfonso Cusi, then Philippine Ports Authority general manager, whose assistant is my brother-in-law," said the Maranao judge. "He even invited me to his birthday party in Malacañang."
Moner said that upon his reappointment to the Shari'a court by President Arroyo in February 2004, he gave up the leadership of the movement to trusted lieutenants like Macadaub and Batugan.
Macadaub told "Probe" that he was sent to Sulu during the canvassing of votes to meet an official who coordinated his meetings with election officers. He delivered P500,000 for the poll officials and went back to Iligan after five days with a photocopy of the COC. "Gloria, she won by about more than 18,000," he said.
Certificates of canvass showed Arroyo beating Poe in Sulu with 78,429 votes against 60,807 votes. The final tally of Namfrel had Poe leading the count with 45,740 votes while Arroyo having 23,896 votes.
For his part, Batugan, a former election officer himself, was tasked with talking to Lanao del Sur election officials. Two other members of the movement accompanied him. "We talked to them to reverse the COC," he said. "That's where we did it, the COC. We just gave them money."
The Lanao del Sur dirty-tricks operations had a P1-million budget, said Batugan. In a phone interview, Gudani said he has never met Moner but has heard of him and his group's activities.
According to Batugan, the COCs in the towns of Wao and Bumbaran were doctored in front of him. In the town of Saguiran, he himself filled up the COC.
The Wao election returns secured from the Comelec and Namfrel indicated that Poe obtained 7,647 votes against Arroyo's 3,816 votes. In the municipal COC, the tables were turned: Arroyo had 7,614 votes while Poe had 4,967 votes. The poll results in Bumbaran and Saguiran followed the same pattern.
Batugan and Macadaub said election officials intentionally delayed the canvassing of votes in Mindanao to make way for their "follow-up" operations. Elections officials had supposedly received a substantial amount before the polls and the money they distributed was for extra work that had to be done.
Zuce, who was then on Rufino's staff, confirmed this in a separate interview. He also said that while administration operators worked independently of each other, it was clear to all that the First Gentleman had his own unit working in Mindanao. Zuce himself operated in Mindanao together with the group of Garcillano and Rufino. His tasks were similar to that of Macadaub and Batugan — emissaries assigned to monitor, coordinate and deliver money to election officials.
In the follow-up operations, the budget for the elections officers was between P30,000 and P50,000, depending on the size of the town's voting population, said Macadaub. Every vote to cover the losses of President Arroyo was allegedly paid P10, while votes added in excess of the FPJ lead were equivalent to P20 each. A P5,000 to P10,000 "deposit" was made before the municipal canvass. Full payment was made upon the submission of a photocopied COC to administration emissaries.
The movement members said they worked independently, but were supposedly endorsed to the election officers by phone by Commissioner Garcillano. Macadaub explained, "We did not know the people we were supposed to meet or talk to. So Garci called them to advise that we were arriving with the money."
Batugan and Macadaub admitted they are spilling the beans because they were disappointed with the First Gentleman. He did not fulfill his promise, they said. They had wanted government jobs. Said Macadaub: "We didn't even ask for money. To tell you honestly, I went to Jolo for P5,000 only as my expenses. When I visited at the time, most were for FPJ." He said Arroyo would have lost had they not gone there.
The disgruntled Lanao Unity Movement members wrote the First Gentleman and his son, Pampanga Rep. Juan Miguel "Mikey" Arroyo, to remind them of their promise. Two letters, one dated September 2004, the other March 2005, were signed by three movement members. It put on record "clandestine" operations in the 2004 presidential polls to secure an Arroyo victory. One even provided specific details of the irregular activities that included "approaching, convincing Board of Election Officers and Local Election Officers to facilitate and ensure that all votes be for PGMA in consideration of a certain amount of money" for each election official.
Surprisingly, the Office of the President answered one of the letters. The reply, written on a Malacañang letterhead and signed by Assistant Secretary Juris Soliman, said that while the First Gentleman acknowledges the "invaluable support" extended to his wife, he "does not and cannot meddle with governance of the administration."
In fact, the alleged activities of Moner's group are an open secret in Lanao. Macadaub and Batugan even said they had planned to come out with their story as early as June, when the Garci tapes scandal first broke. They thought of joining a protest rally that was supposed to greet President Arroyo in Cagayan de Oro, but Malacañang somehow got wind of their plan. The president reportedly called for Judge Moner who was supposedly asked to pacify his men.
Moner promised the men Malacañang would attend to their needs in two weeks. "We agreed," said Macadaub. "That day we even held a presscon...instead of protesting, we again promoted her, supported her." The group also condemned the opposition for supposedly recruiting them for a plot against the president. But even then, they didn't get what they were promised.
Meanwhile, the townsfolk of Poona Bayabao have only recently learned that they had likely been robbed of their votes, and only because of a fluke. A town of just a little more than 17,000, a third of whom were registered voters in 2004, Poona Bayabao can provide only the bare minimum to its residents. Even the very basic services are lacking here.
"We have electricity only 20 minutes every day," said police chief SPO1 Alimundas Lucman. "Sometimes we have none for the whole day. Here at the police station, we don't even have vehicles so when trouble breaks out, we can't respond right away."
But by some stroke of luck, there was electricity when the story about the presidential election results in Poona Bayabao made TV news recently. Recalled Namfrel's Dibansa, who refused to discuss what he said was a threat to his life: "It was only from TV that most of us here learned about how President Arroyo's opponents got no votes, including FPJ."
Lucman, meanwhile, looked like he still couldn't believe what he had heard. He said Poona Bayabans grew up worshipping Poe as the fearless Muslim policeman in the movie "Magnum .357." "How could we forget him?" he said. "And with us Muslims, we want our leaders to be men."