, November 17, 2005
(STAR) By Aurea Calica - Amid a revival of the "Hello Garci" controversy, Malacañang dared the opposition and the Senate yesterday to produce former election commissioner Virgilio Garcillano themselves in their congressional inquiries as Palace officials rejected accusations of a cover-up.

The opposition in the House of Representatives wants to highlight an alleged government cover-up of the electoral fraud allegations hounding President Arroyo in the findings of a congressional inquiry.

Five House committees that conducted the joint inquiry are to begin debates to finalize the report that is expected to be bitterly contentious.

The opposition accuses the Arroyo administration of involvement in the disappearance of Garcillano, who is at the center of vote-rigging charges aimed at Mrs. Arroyo.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said the cover-up accusations were unfair and that the opposition has failed to "squeeze out facts beyond the knowledge and awareness of government functionaries."

"But we have to point out that some committee members themselves were on a fishing and witch-hunting expedition and were using the probe as a political platform," Bunye said.

Mrs. Arroyo’s allies in the House, on the other hand, want to highlight in the draft report that the election fraud accusations are part of a "grand conspiracy" by allies of deposed President Joseph Estrada, whom Mrs. Arroyo replaced in 2001 after a popular uprising, to force her from office.

Mrs. Arroyo has been fighting off the poll fraud allegations since June when the opposition released audiotapes purportedly detailing her phone conversations with Garcillano, in which they allegedly discuss ways to manipulate the outcome of last year’s presidential election.

The Senate will resume today its own inquiry into the scandal as well as a separate investigation into allegations that the Arroyo administration used government funds intended for farmers in the election campaign.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said they were hoping to get a respite from the scandal this Christmas but nonetheless expected the opposition and other Arroyo critics to continue their campaign to oust her from office.

Ermita maintained the administration was not hiding Garcillano or other former government officials suspected of involvement in the agricultural fund misuse.

"You know, your assumption seems to be that it’s the administration hiding them. We have nothing to do with them so if they want to come out, let them come out," Ermita said.

"There are appropriate persons, bodies that should be doing that. But for Malacañang to be too concerned about it is another matter. There are many things that the Palace has to attend to," he added.

Ermita said the opposition is stepping up its anti-Arroyo campaign at a time when the country’s fragile economy is showing signs of recovery.

"How we wish that the people would be responsible enough to set that aside in preparation for Christmas because if that is a steak, that’s probably overdone, overcooked," he said. "In preparation for the holidays, let’s be more positive."

Lawmakers who conducted the House inquiry into the so-called "Garci tapes" said the joint committee report may undergo changes depending on the outcome of the debates.

"The draft report is not yet final and may be subject to a great amount of change," said Lanao del Sur Rep. Benasing Macarambon.

"We’re still in the process of approving it," said Cavite Rep. Gilbert Remulla, whose committee on public information headed the joint inquiry.

The controversy remains an "open book" because several issues still have to be threshed out, Remulla said. He did not elaborate. "Hopefully we’ll be able to come to a conclusion or recommendation. Hopefully, it’s going to spur more inquiries."

Garcillano is being sought by opposition lawmakers to answer questions on his alleged role in the election fraud accusations against Mrs. Arroyo.

He disappeared after the tapes became public in July and the opposition suspects that the Arroyo administration was involved in his disappearance.

He is believed to be hiding in another country and efforts to locate him have failed.

Arroyo allies in the House insist that the tapes were part of a "conspiracy to embarrass the President into resigning by the use of the so-called Garci tapes or to topple the government outright through the public outrage generated by the scandal of the so-called tapes."

Shortly after the tapes surfaced, Mrs. Arroyo admitted that she had improperly called an unidentified election official during last year’s presidential vote count.

But she denied rigging the outcome and rejected opposition calls for her resignation.

After failing to rouse massive street protests to oust Mrs. Arroyo, the opposition filed an impeachment complaint in the House of Representatives.

But Mrs. Arroyo’s allies in the House quashed the complaint in September, leading to a protracted political standoff. — With Delon Porcalla

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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