MANILA,  JUNE 5, 2004
By Paolo Romero  -  Security at the Batasang Pambansa has been tightened after election documents, including two blank certificates of canvass, were found late Thursday at the entrance of the legislatureís session hall during a security check.

The incident could threaten the credibility of the canvassing of votes by Congress, which is being bogged down by legal questions from the camp of main opposition candidate Fernando Poe Jr.

Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. has ordered tighter security as well as an investigation by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).

He suspected the incident could be a deliberate attempt to "impugn the integrity of the canvassing proceedings."

"We certainly denounce the dark and shadowy forces who are trying in vain to malign the credibility of (the House of Representatives and the Senate)," De Venecia told a press conference. "This creates an alarming development for us as we begin the canvass."

Congress, sitting as the National Canvassing Board, has the sole authority to determine the results of the presidential election and proclaim the winner.

"We want to know who planted the envelope. Who is the mastermind? What is the motive?" De Venecia said.

Asked whether Poeís party, the Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP), could be suspect, De Venecia refused to speculate: "I wish not, itís too early to tell."

He said the incident is not likely to delay the canvassing unless the opposition makes it an issue.

De Venecia said he has written Commission on Elections (Comelec) chief Benjamin Abalos to determine if the election documents were authentic. He said they looked fake.

In a written report to De Venecia, Andro Fabic, deputy to the House sergeant-at-arms, said security men found a brown envelope on a desk at the plenary hall entrance around 9:45 p.m. last Thursday, about 20 minutes after the session was suspended.

Inside were two small envelopes bearing the Comelecís seal; two certificates of canvass (COCs) with serial numbers 89455, 89457, 89462, 89464, 89498 and 89500; and three copies of election returns with serial numbers 12068, 12069, 12070 and 12071.

Also found were two pieces of paper with the numbers "80" and "130" written on them.

Camarines Sur Rep. Rolando Andaya Jr., spokesman for the National Board of Canvassers, said the numbers could be ballot box numbers.

Ballot boxes being opened by Congress in the canvassing are all numbered.

Andaya said the ballot box from Camarines Norte is number 80 while the one from Samar is number 130.

Earlier this week during the canvassing, lawmakers were dumbfounded when the Camarines Norte ballot box contained no certificate of canvass.

The incident delayed the canvassing when opposition Rep. Didagen Dilangalen implied that the box was probably tampered while it and all the other boxes were being stored at the Senate.

He had a spirited exchange with Senate President Franklin Drilon, who strongly maintained that the boxes were untouched. The ballot boxes were brought to the Senate prior to their delivery to the House.

The KNP said the incident was proof of massive cheating by the administration to rob their candidate, actor-turned-politician Fernando Poe Jr., of victory.

They claim Poe won by over a million votes based on their count.

Fabic said House security personnel are reviewing tapes of closed-circuit television cameras to determine who left the election documents. Ballot boxes sitting in the session hall and those in the South Wing Lobby of the building are under 24-hour watch, he said.

De Venecia said the incident could be related to the discovery of fake COCs at the Senate last May 17. Senate sergeant-at-arms Jose Balajadia declined to comment on that incident, saying that the NBI is still investigating it.

Yesterdayís session was again delayed by opposition pointman Dilangalen, who asked that Abalos be summoned to shed light on the election documents found Thursday.

He asked that canvassing rules be amended, saying the authenticity of COCs submitted to Congress were now questionable.

His latest attempt to stall the proceedings set off a heated exchange with De Venecia, who asked Dilangalen to "respect the proceedings as we have respected your views."

Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales Jr. rejected Dilangalenís call for amendments, prompting De Venecia to order the House secretary general to open the remaining ballot boxes.

Incensed that he was ignored, Dilangalen questioned the chamberís quorum. A roll call, however, showed that 133 lawmakers were in attendance, enough for a quorum.

Drilon has written to the Comelec seeking an explanation for the missing COCs from Camarines Norte.

Earlier, asked to comment on the incident, Comelec commissioner Virgilio Garcillano said it was probably the work of a "magician" at the Senate.

The remark drew a sharp reply from Drilon, who said it was uncalled for. Senate Secretary Oscar Yabes said the remark, "even if made in jest, is distasteful and repugnant, and degrades the high office (Garcillano) is holding."

Drilon said he will ask the KNP and the administration coalition to submit to Congress their copies of the COCs to determine the balloting results in the province. COCs come in seven copies.

"We will compare them with the Comelec copy and Iím sure thereís nothing to it," Drilon said.

Similar incidents occurred during the 1992 and 1998 presidential elections, Drilon said. "They did not result in the failure of elections."

Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan said the missing COCs may be irregular but not crucial to the count. He heads the Senate contingent in the joint congressional committee conducting the canvass.

"As we open the boxes, we find no other similar incident so far. It is utterly unfair to make sweeping statements of fraud or massive irregularities that would affect the integrity of the entire proceedings," he said.

Dilangalenís accusations were "also unfair to the Senate employees who have been unjustly accused of incompetence and even fraud."

"We should not mistake possible human error for malice," Pangilinan said. "I am not excusing any possible culpability of the people concerned with the ballot box faux pas. But to cling to the incident and discredit the entire canvass and label the subsequent COCs as questionable because of two missing COCs? Well, let the people be the judge. Itís a classic case of making a mountain out of a molehill."

Pangilinan added the election documents found late Thursday were most likely left by "malicious elements." "I call on the people to be discerning of the situation, and see this incident for what it is, a dangerous and lame attempt to discredit the ongoing proceedings of the joint session." ó With Jose Rodel Clapano, Jess Diaz

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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