MANILA,  JUNE 11, 2004
By Edu Punay  -  Despite delays in the ongoing canvass of votes in Congress, an opposition representative in the joint committee said yesterday that winnners in this year’s presidential election will be proclaimed in two weeks at the latest.

Sorsogon Rep. Francis Escudero, who won another three-year mandate, said this year’s counting would be faster than in the 1992 presidential elections.

"We will beat the June 22 finish of the 1992 elections, more or less," Escudero said during a breakfast forum of the Manila Overseas Press Club at the Ristorante La Dolce Fontana in Greenhills, San Juan.

For his part, Senate President Franklin Drilon said the 22-member joint committee might be able to finish the canvass by June 18.

Escudero noted the significant increase in the number of COCs tallied by the committee. It canvassed 25 COCs in yesterday’s counting alone, bringing the total number to 55, with 121 more to go.

"If we are able to count 13 to 15 COCs a day, we can finish this in a week and a half’s time," Escudero said.

Drilon, on the other hand, said that once the canvassing is finished by June 18, the committee can prepare its report on June 19 and 20 and submit it to the National Board of Canvassers on June 21.

"We would be giving about four to five days of debates to act on the report of the joint committee, so that hopefully by about June 25, we would have proclaimed the president and vice president," Drilon said.

According to Escudero, who was the campaign spokesman for Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) standard- bearer Fernando Poe Jr., the members of the committee are aware of the need to accomplish their task before June 30, as required by the Constitution.

"But we believe that credibility is more important," Escudero said, supporting his fellow opposition congressmen.

In an attempt to prove poll fraud, the opposition has demanded that the COCs be compared with election returns.

"The issues on fraud should be resolved before a candidate is proclaimed so the mandate would be clear," he noted, stressing that his role as Poe’s spokesman ended on the day of the elections and he is now speaking as a member of the national canvassing board.

Meanwhile, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) found several discrepancies in the statement of a janitress working at the Senate where several fake statement of votes and certificates of canvass were recovered last May 17.

Janitress Isabel Vasquez, who was assigned to the office of Sen. Edgardo Angara, was the last person seen to have used the ladies’ comfort room at the fifth floor of the Senate building before a brown envelope containing fake SOVs and COCs was found by elevator operator Charito Lacdao at around 9:50 a.m.

Vasquez was summoned by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) after she was captured by the Senate security camera on her way to the rest room at around 9:37 a.m.

NBI Director Reynaldo Wycoco showed reporters a "faithful reproduction" of a security video showing Vasquez on her way to the comfort room from the office of Senator Angara carrying a "tabloid."

The video contradicted Vasquez’s earlier claim that she took the tabloid from the center security lobby at the fifth floor.

Ricardo Diaz, chief of the NBI-International Police (Interpol Division), said that based on the video footage, Vasquez was carrying "something heavier" than a tabloid.

"Her hand did not even swing as she walked on her way to the comfort room and on her way out." Diaz pointed out.

NBI agents Raul Tepace, Lito Magno and Angelo Zarzoso, however, explained that the inconsistencies in Vasquez’s statement are not enough to charge her in court for distribution of fake election materials.

"We need concrete evidence. At present, she is not yet a suspect but still a witness," Wycoco stressed.

Vasquez denied any knowledge of who placed the fake documents inside the comfort room. She also claimed she had not seen the brown envelope when she used the comfort room.

Aside from Vasquez and Lacdao, the NBI summoned four other Senate personnel to help shed light on the case. Summoned were Elizabeth Jacinto, a staff of Sen. Panfilo Lacson; Donafe Lanuza, janitress; Elmore Mercurio and Jose Manuel, both security guards assigned to the Senate building.

Wycoco said the bureau has also summoned two personnel at the House of Representatives who also found fake SOVs and COCs at a table in the media lounge last June 3. The fake documents found at the House of Representatives were similar to the spurious documents found in the Senate.

The NBI chief said that Speaker de Venecia has given assurance of Congress’ full cooperation in the investigation.

Meanwhile, the Comelec said that genuine COCs are different from the 10 fake COCs now in possession of the bureau.

The spurious documents have only five serial numbers while the original has six. The fake COCs were also not color coded and do not have certain security markings.

Wycoco was quick to clarify though that the bureau is not linking any senator or public official to the fake SOVs and COCs. The NBI was merely tasked by the Comelec to trace the origin of the fake documents.

In Cebu, leaders of various civil society groups denounced the KNP for engaging in black propaganda to destroy the integrity of the election in the province for president and vice president.

The KNP has presented 10 hooded, unidentified individuals who allegedly witnessed election anomalies but the local media were not allowed to interview them.

"This is another crude attempt by KNP to shore up the dead cause of its standard-bearer, Fernando Poe Jr., who was clearly beaten during the election but could not accept defeat," Talisay City mayor-elect Socrates Fernandez said.

Members of the Cebu media were also up in arms over their "second-class" treatment when they were denied access to the alleged witnesses.

Five of the 10 supposed witnesses were reportedly interviewed by Manila reporters in a secret venue but they talked only of localized cheating.

Elias Vaquero of Sunstar Daily questioned the KNP’s motive in hiding the faces of witnesses and stopping Cebu newsmen from talking to them.

"Are they afraid we could expose them as fakes?" he asked.

For his part, Cebu Gov. Pablo Garcia, in a separate press conference, said the opposition has no basis for claiming that election in Cebu was tainted with fraud.

Earlier, Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal declared that the election in Cebu was clean, free and honest. — with Cecille Suerte Felipe, Jose Rodel Clapano

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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