, November 28, 2005
(STAR) By John Unson - Former election official Virgilio Garcillano emerged briefly from hiding somewhere in Mindanao yesterday to deny charges that President Arroyo cheated in last year’s presidential election and that he conspired to help her win by a narrow margin.

Garcillano, who has been wanted by the Arroyo administration’s political rivals since he disappeared at the height of the election-fraud allegations last July, said he was willing to be investigated to prove his innocence.

Garcillano has been in hiding for almost six months after the opposition released audio tapes in June allegedly showing him and a woman who sounds like Mrs. Arroyo conspiring to rig the elections.

"Nowhere in the taped conversation can you hear me and the President talking about cheating in the elections. Neither did the President order me to cheat in the elections," Garcillano told The STAR in a clandestine interview in an undisclosed location in Mindanao.

"I can tell you and I swear that there was no such thing as the rigging of the last elections," he said.

Garcillano wants the Supreme Court to first nullify the arrest warrant issued by the House of Representatives for snubbing a congressional inquiry on the electoral fraud accusations before he comes forward.

He also denied reports that he went abroad to avoid being questioned about the controversy. His disappearance prompted the political opposition to suspect the Arroyo administration of a coverup.

"Contrary to reports, I have not gone abroad to hide, I only hopped from one province to another as I waited for the situation to cool down," Garcillano said, adding that the administration did not help him hide from the controversy.

Garcillano looked healthy and was clean shaven. He wore a blue shirt and was accompanied by a lawyer and three aides when he showed up for the interview with The STAR.

He said he first stayed in Tagaytay City and then transferred from one place to another to avoid discovery.

Garcillano said he decided to lay low for a while "because I knew then there was no way for the public to believe whatever I say because I was unduly pre-judged as a consequence of the hearings initiated by the legislature," referring to the opposition-initiated inquiry on the allegations in the House of Representatives.

Garcillano added he went into hiding because of threats to his life.

"The warrant issued for my arrest was also not in accordance with the principle of due process because I did not have the chance to speak and clarify my side first on the issue. I also received so many death threats so I decided not to be visible to the eye of the public," he said.

"The truth is that I am the one being persecuted here. This is so unfair."

Garcillano said he spoke with Mrs. Arroyo several days after the May 2004 elections, not during the slow vote count.

"The people who circulated it (the audio tapes of the wiretapped conversations) waited for so long before using the taped conversation to insinuate that the President cheated in the last presidential elections," he said.

"It should have been circulated and used right away while the canvassing of the results of the presidential elections was still going on in Congress, not after so long a time."

Garcillano maintains that those who used the audio tapes of his conversations broke the anti-wiretap law. One of his main problems now, he said, is how to make the public understand that.

"Such taped conversation cannot be used either as evidence and basis for prosecution," he explained. "I hope those responsible for the circulation of the taped conversation will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of law."

It remains uncertain where the tapes originated.

In June, former National Bureau of Investigation deputy director Samuel Ong held a press conference in a Makati City seminary and claimed that what he called the "mother of all tapes" was given to him by former buddies in the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

A military intelligence agent, T/Sgt. Vidal Doble, was later identified to have tapped Mrs. Arroyo’s phone conversations. Doble was assigned to Military Intelligence Group-21, a ISAFP unit. He denies the accusation and is currently under police investigation.

The House of Representatives ordered Garcillano arrested after five committees investigating Garcillano’s alleged phone conversations with Mrs. Arroyo cited him for contempt and ordered his arrest after he ignored three summonses from them.

Opposition lawmakers and Arroyo critics offered reward money to anyone who could lead authorities to Garcillano.

Malacañang rejected opposition insinuations that it had Garcillano murdered to hide the truth about the electoral fraud allegations.

Mrs. Arroyo has apologized for a "lapse in judgment," in speaking to an unnamed elections official before the votes were tallied but she has denied any cheating to win the May 2004 polls. She did not identify the official.

She described her action as a clumsy bid to protect her slim margin amid a slow vote count.

Her qualified apology sparked resignations of key cabinet members in July and a number of key allies including ex-President Corazon Aquino and Senate President Franklin Drilon. Some business leaders also urged her to step down.

Opposition legislators summoned Garcillano to testify against Mrs. Arroyo in an impeachment case which she survived in September, but the former election official disappeared, possibly abroad, as soon as the tapes surfaced.

Mrs. Arroyo’s supporters say Garcillano’s return could provide the necessary closure to the fraud allegations that have spun into a months-long political crisis.

Opposition politicians said they expected Garcillano to deny all charges that would implicate him and Mrs. Arroyo.

In September, Mrs. Arroyo’s allies in the House of Representatives defeated an opposition move to impeach her on charges of vote-rigging.

Her opponents, however, have continued to stage protests, which have considerably dwindled in recent months.

Mrs. Arroyo has rejected opposition calls to resign or hold fresh elections, saying such proposals were meant to destabilize her government and bring her opponents to power.

She has urged the opposition to stop criticizing and help bolster the country’s fragile economy.

‘Garci circus back in town’

With Garcillano back, First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo’s lawyer said he expects the "opposition circus" to announce its "agenda of lies and disinformation" about Mrs. Arroyo’s husband.

A man sounding like Mrs. Arroyo’s husband was also heard in the wiretapped phone conversations beseeching the election official to help a pro-administration senator, Robert Barbers, seek re-election.

In a statement, lawyer Jesus Santos flatly denied the allegations of former senator Francisco Tatad that the First Gentleman had met with Garcillano last week in Zamboanga del Sur.

"Hindi ba pag may bagong karnabal sa sasalta sa bayan, ang unang senyales ay ang paglilibot ng mga payaso na siyang mga sugo ng palabas (Isn’t it that the first sign whenever there is a new carnival in town is the wandering of clowns who are the criers of the show)?" Santos asked.

"Former ‘disinformation’ minister Kit Tatad is aptly suited for the role of lead clown in this flea-bitten political circus they are again parading for the public amusement," he said, referring to Tatad’s stint as information minister during the brutal Marcos dictatorship.

Santos brushed aside the opposition’s allegations against his client as "failures and based on half-truths and outright lies."

Santos said Arroyo was in Hong Kong last Wednesday and in Cebu last Friday to attend the opening of some events of the 23rd Southeast Asian Games there.

He said the administration’s political opponents were probably apprehensive that Garcillano would disclose the identities of opposition politicians who made inappropriate phone calls to him during last year’s election vote count.

"Clearly, it is not to the opposition interests to let our improving economy go on unimpeded. They must now try to redouble their efforts to bring our country down, and let our people be damned for their political selfishness," Santos said.

"And perhaps they are aware that Commissioner Garcillano may well be unleashing a bombshell on how certain opposition members comported themselves during the elections." — With AFP, AP, Paolo Romero

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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