MANILA,  May 18, 2004 (STAR) By Delon Porcalla and Jose Rodel Clapano  -  Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. assured the nation yesterday that the canvassing of votes for president and vice president will not be railroaded by Congress, which is set to convene in joint session as the National Board of Canvassers to proclaim the winners of the May 10 national elections.

As this developed, Senate President Franklin Drilon revealed that blank election forms were suspiciously found lying around the Senate premises.

At a press conference, Drilon said he has ordered a thorough investigation into the discovery yesterday by Senate employees of three brown envelopes each containing four copies of blank certificates of votes and three certificates of canvass. Each COC and COV has four pages. Only the third envelope contained a stick-on paper seal of the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

Drilon suspects that a group of "political operators" are out to discredit the canvassing to be conducted by both the Senate and House of Representatives on May 24.

De Venecia, however, guaranteed a "credible" and "transparent process" of canvassing, adding the public and the media will witness the process.

"All the parties will have the chance to present their side," he said, vowing to "expedite" the canvassing.

According to Drilon, a member of the Office of the Sergeant at Arms (OSAA) named Jose Manuel found the first unmarked long manila envelope at around 9:30 a.m. at the fire exit of the Senate’s third floor.

Elevator operator Charito Lacdao, discovered the second unmarked long manila envelope in the lavatory of the ladies’ room on the fifth floor near the elevators.

The third unmarked long manila envelope was found by Elizabeth Jacinto, staff member of Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s office, at the fire exit stairway of the fourth floor, Core A.

All three Senate employees immediately reported their discoveries to their supervisors.

The first two envelopes were sniffed by K-9 dogs for fear that they contained explosives. There was none. Both envelopes were turned over to the OSAA.

Jacinto and Marlon Alfonso, another Lacson staff, decided to open the third envelope and discovered that apart from containing copies of the blank COVs and COCs, it had one unused stick-on paper seal of the Comelec.

Jacinto immediately turned over her find to Elmore Mercurio, legislative security guard, who then brought it to OSAA chief retired general Jose Balajadia.

Balajadia suspected this was the handiwork of "insiders" who are familiar with the Senate premises.

Drilon noted the discovery of the election forms came as they continued to receive COCs and election returns on the presidential and vice presidential contest from last week’s polls.

"Offhand, I can only theorize two motives behind the discovery of the COC forms. First, this could be part of a sloppy attempt to influence the outcome of the elections by inserting fraudulent election returns before the actual canvass," Drilon said.

"(Or) this could be part of a sloppier attempt by unscrupulous political operators to cast doubts on the integrity of the entire election process by planting bogus COC forms and then question the impartiality of the Senate in receiving and canvassing the returns," he said.

Drilon noted security measures employed by the Senate thwarted whatever intention was behind this.

The Senate president recalled that Demaree Raval, lawyer for the opposition Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) and staff member of opposition Sen. Edgardo Angara, got the ire of Balajadia on May 7 when he made the libelous statement that "switching of COCs would take place at the Senate."

"When this scenario is put forward, one cannot help but recall the statement made by Senate sergeant-at-arms Balajadia last May 7 when he denounced as libelous the public allegations made by KNP lawyer Raval that an alleged switching of COCs would take place in the Senate," Drilon said.

He recounted that Raval even presented to the media a "spurious letter" supposedly written by a certain G.S., warning of the alleged COC switching.

The letter was dated May 27 but Raval showed it to the media on May 7, Drilon pointed out.

This was the second attempt to cast doubt on the integrity of the COCs being received by the Senate, he added.

Earlier, Drilon disclosed that a letter was also circulated to the media alleging that the Senate had stored empty ballot boxes supposedly to be used for election fraud.

Despite this dubious development, Drilon assured the nation that the canvassing will be transparent and free from fraud.

"I would like to reiterate my assurance to the Filipino people that no attempt to defraud the elections will ever succeed," he said. "At the Senate, no sinister act will ever be successful."

In a report to Drilon, Balajadia said the first two envelopes found were sealed while the third was already opened when found.

Balajadia said all access to the Senate premises is recorded by monitor cameras except the stairway from the first to sixth floor.

But he added: "We are very sure that whoever planted these envelopes are familiar on the positioning of these monitor cameras."

"We suspect this is the handiwork of insiders," he theorized.

Drilon earlier said Congress may be able to proclaim the country’s two new leaders in just over a week after resuming session on May 24.

De Venecia, on the other hand, has said the process will depend on the timely transmittal of the COCs from the country’s cities and 79 provinces as well as results from the absentee voting system.

"We must act rapidly to return the nation to normal and reassure the business and international community about the country’s continuing stability," De Venecia stressed.

He cautioned losing candidates against making "irresponsible and undocumented allegations."

De Venecia, who won reelection as Pangasinan congressman, echoed calls made by Malacañang for unity and sobriety amid opposition charges that the administration is resorting to massive cheating. The Palace denies this.

"We must work together to heal the nation’s wounds and propel the nation forward under the government of national unity we have proposed (that is) built around a common program of political and economic reform," said De Venecia.

Depending on how fast the COCs are transmitted, House Deputy Secretary-General Artemio Adasa said earlier the process may take three or four days.

It took Congress five days in 1998 to declare Joseph Estrada as president and three weeks for Fidel Ramos in 1992, he said.

Adasa said the length of canvassing would also depend on the agreement of both lawmaking bodies on the time frame and procedures for the canvass.

Under the Constitution, the new president and vice president should take their oath of office at noon of June 30.

Adasa said the COCs and election returns from the provinces and cities will be received by the Senate in Pasay City before it will be transmitted "under heavy security" to the House at the Batasan complex in Quezon City.

The election forms will be formally received by House Secretary-General Roberto Nazareno for custody.

Nazareno, in turn, will formally present the COCs before the National Board of Canvassers as required by law to canvass the votes and proclaim the winners of the two highest elected positions in the land.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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