Man that got away
Was it so long ago that we seem to have forgotten the “Hello Garci” scandal that occurred in 2004? Or have we been so snowed under by the pork barrel scam that hardly a peep is heard regarding the man who got away, the man who must feel like the luckiest in the world?
Virgilio Garcillano was the Commission on Elections official heard in a taped phone call discussing the outcome of the 2004 presidential vote count with a woman who sounded suspiciously like Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was then seeking a fresh six-year term. After the airing of the tape resulted in loud calls by various quarters for the election to be nullified and for Arroyo to vacate the post she had apparently stolen through the machinations of Garcillano and a number of other Comelec and military officials, Malacañang staged a skit on national TV: A morose-looking Arroyo admitted it was indeed she who was caught on tape talking to a Comelec official, in a purported effort to “protect her votes.” For that, she said in a famously measured tone, “I am sorry.”
And with that, the nation moved on. Having owned up to what in other countries and political cultures would qualify as one of the greatest political crimes—the theft, or at least the tampering, of the vote—Arroyo brazened out the tsunami of public outrage and clung to her position even as a whole bloc of her Cabinet resigned and a seemingly endless series of controversies, from the national-broadband scandal to the Maguindanao massacre, buffeted her administration.
Meanwhile, “Garci” himself slipped out of the country, vanishing for a while and causing reports of sightings in such places as Malaysia, Singapore and London. When he reappeared in 2005, he was summoned to a joint congressional hearing that was looking into the allegations of electoral fraud perpetrated by Arroyo and her ruling party.
Garcillano denied that he or Arroyo participated in rigging the polls, but admitted he had called her to talk about the election tally. He also denied fleeing overseas and trying to evade the inquiry into his conduct. That denial would form the basis for the charge of perjury with which the Office of the Ombudsman indicted him only last March, after it was found that he had presented spurious documents and lied under oath when he told Congress that he didn’t leave Philippine soil, when in fact he transited through Changi airport en route to London, as attested to by the Singapore foreign ministry. To reflect that fabrication, Garcillano also apparently presented a counterfeit passport.
Perjury and falsification of documents are not light infractions, and if Garcillano ends up punished for such crimes, then some form of justice would have been achieved. But in the light of the enormously more consequential transgression he appears to have committed in 2004, which is the desecration of the vote and the thwarting of the people’s electoral will in violation of his oath as an independent election official, Garcillano deserves far greater chastisement than the relatively small-fry cases he is now up against.
That ideal outcome, however, no longer has any chance of becoming real. No less than the current chair of the Comelec, Sixto Brillantes, has announced that Garcillano and others involved in the “Hello Garci” scandal are off the hook, absolved now because the five-year prescription period for the filing of cases had lapsed.
Getting caught on tape—the height of incontrovertible evidence in other climes, one that would have caused the downfall of governments and sometimes the suicide of humiliated public officials—proved no match to the industrial-grade sense of impunity and plain, smirking nonchalance of Arroyo and her phone pal. Why, Garcillano even ran for representative of the first district of Bukidnon in the 2007 midterm elections. The political exercise he had dragged through the mud was forced to accommodate him as a wannabe representative of the people’s will.
Garcillano lost that election. But in a larger sense, he won. He proved that the Philippines’ capacity for the absolute worst that a government and its officials could do was bottomless. He could waltz away from raising a middle finger at the voters; he could even mock them by seeking to become a candidate himself. And his otherworldly luck hasn’t run out: The scandal that bears his name now can’t even be used to go after him.
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