BACOLOR, PAMPANGA,  May 19, 2004 (STAR) By Ding Cervantes  ó  It was nothing but "honest mistakes" made by overworked election officers.

This was the defense made by an election commission supervisor in this province after admitting an oversight in the canvassing of votes for opposition Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr.

But the errors committed in the canvassing of election returns and certificates of canvass (COCs) were corrected even before lawyers representing Pimentel brought them to his attention, explained provincial Commission on Elections (Comelec) supervisor Artemio Lambino.

"It was an honest mistake that we corrected," Lambino told The STAR, pointing out that these lapses were made by "already very tired election officers."

But Pimentel, a victim of the dagdag-bawas (vote padding and shaving) scheme in the 1995 senatorial elections, felt it was a "deliberate" move to reduce votes that went to him.

This developed as the re-electionist senator filed yesterday criminal charges against five members of the board of canvassers (BOC) of this town for supposedly shaving 5,000 votes from him.

He claimed that the actual votes he received in this town was 6,030, but this was reduced to only 603.

Pimentel described the reduction of his votes as a classic example of large-scale "bawas" operations.

"It is clear that the action of the BOC and their tabulators was deliberate. And the damage to me would have been consummated were it not detected by my volunteers who had to vigorously argue before the provincial board of canvassers (PBOC) of Pampanga to correct this criminal act," Pimentel said.

He is considering another set of charges to be filed against the board of canvassers in San Simon town for transferring 27,000 more of his votes to an administration candidate, who will be named in the complaint itself. The charges will be filed as soon as his documents are completed.

However, Lambino stressed this error has also been rectified.

"The municipal board of canvassers there later noticed the error," Lambino said when the number "7" was accidentally written down instead of a comma.

Lambino noted that the error surfaced during the provincial canvassing when election officers noted that administration candidate Mar Roxasí 2,000 votes ended up being handwritten as 27,000 in the COCs from the municipality, which had only about 23,000 registered voters.

"I am sure it was also an honest mistake by people already very tired because they also wrote in the same document the number of registered voters in their area, which was only about 23,000," Lambino said. "If there was intent to cheat, they would have left blank the space for the number of registered voters."

He lamented that the mistake was apparently taken to mean that votes were deducted from Pimentel to favor Roxas. "That is not true at all."

In Bacolor, Lambino said his attention was called by the municipal board of canvassers after "inconsistency in the statement of votes from the precincts and the summary of votes" was discovered.

It was found out that a "zero" in the summary of votes for Pimentel was missing, so that the senatorís total of 6,030 votes was listed only as 603 votes.

"Pimentelís lawyers failed to take note of the correction before they left the venue for provincial canvassing about Wednesday after the elections," Lambino said.

"How can election officials dare cheat when the lawyers even signed and put their thumbmarks on the pertinent election documents even at the contested precincts?" he asked.

Lambino said he welcomes any investigation on alleged cheating during the May 10 elections in Pampanga. "There were errors, but these were honest mistakes by people whose physical and mental conditions were already affected by hard work," he said.

Pimentelís Side

Pimentel pushed through yesterday with the filing of charges against Chona Sagcal, chairwoman of the municipal board of canvassers in Bacolor; Lucila Songco, vice-chairwoman; and Maria Magday, member-secretary. Also charged were BOC tabulators Chris Infante and Alicia San Pedro.

In a two-page complaint filed before the Comelec law department, Pimentel said he lost 5,427 votes from "bawas" operations after the actual 6,030 votes he received in the municipality of Bacolor were reduced to 603.

The senator explained that while the entries for the sub-totals for each statement of votes sheet correctly indicated the votes he obtained, "the grand total surprisingly reflected only 603 votes instead of 6,030 and the last zero (0) digit was dropped taking away from (me) 5,427 votes."

He added that the grand total of votes indicated in the summary statement of votes of 603 was carried over by the board of canvassers to the COC in words and figures. Pimentel noted that both the COC and statement of votes were certified as correct by the board of canvassers and their tabulators by their affixed signatures and thumbprints.

Despite the glaring sub-totals appearing in the summary statement of votes, Pimentel stressed that the board of canvassers clearly dropped the last "0" digit, "knowing full well that the figure appearing in the grand total column would be the basis in preparing the COC."

"In the canvassing for Bacolor, Pampanga, I was the only senatorial candidate that was subjected to this kind of operation bawas by the BOC and their tabulators," Pimentel said in his complaint.

He said the act is in violation of section 27 (b) of Republic Act 6646 that penalizes "any member of the board of canvassers who tampers, increases or decreases the votes received by a candidate in any election."

The penalty for the election offense is from 1 year to 6 years imprisonment without probation, loss of privileges and disqualification from public office. - With Pia Lee-Brago, Jose Rodel Clapano

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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