PRESIDENT Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo allegedly met Commission on Elections (Comelec) field officials not once, but twice, at her home in La Vista, Quezon City in January of 2004. On both occasions, the president asked for the support of Comelec officials for her candidacy.
And, in the first of those meetings, it was "impossible" for the President not to have seen Lubao, Pampanga Mayor Lilia Pineda, wife of jueteng lord Bong Pineda, hand over to a Comelec official a brown envelope filled with small white envelopes, each containing P30,000-bribe money for the election officials who had been invited to the presidential home.
All these were disclosed today to PCIJ and ABS-CBN by former presidential staff officer Michaelangelo "Louie" Zuce, a nephew of controversial ex-Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano. The Malacañang staffer went public Monday with charges that the Arroyo administration had bribed election officials to support the president's candidacy in last year's elections.
Zuce, who was present in both meetings, made no reference to the second dinner at the Arroyo residence in his Aug. 1 sworn statement . He also clarified that while his earlier statement did say that the white envelopes containing the cash were distributed when the president was no longer around, the bigger envelope stuffed with smaller envelopes of cash was given out in Mrs. Arroyo's presence.
Zuce explained that although he was indeed a "minor functionary," as Palace spokesmen asserted, his kinship with Garcillano and the trust his uncle gave him made him privy to confidential matters, including the meetings with the president and the arrangements with Comelec personnel. He was a trusted gofer, someone who could be relied on to arrange meeting sites, deliver and distribute cash, and other logistical requirements.
The former Palace staffmember recounted details of a second meeting arranged for a number of Comelec field officials, especially from the Visayas, who had failed to make it to the first one. A few officials from Mindanao who were in the first meeting were also in the second group, he said.
There were less than 20 Comelec officials in the second dinner, compared to the 27 (all of them from Mindanao) in the first, according to Zuce. All of them, including Zuce himself, received the P30,000-handout from Mrs. Pineda.
Unlike in the first meeting, Garcillano and former Isabela Gov. Faustino Dy Jr. were not present at the dinner that Arroyo hosted for the second group of Comelec officials. Only the president and Mrs. Pineda were there.
Comelec personnel also did not ask for photocopiers or vehicles like their colleagues did the first time. But as the group was making its way to the main door, Pineda handed Comelec Region 4 Director Juanito "Johnny" Icaro a brown envelope.
Back in the vehicle, Icaro took out from the brown envelope filled with small white envelopes, each containing P30,000, and distributed these to his colleagues. "Nakatanggap ako uli (I got one again)," Zuce said.
That second meeting was rather memorable for Zuce because, he said, they were served "pansit na kulay violet (violet-colored noodles)." He said the Comelec officials found it a strange dish.
Zuce, 30, a native of Bukidnon who is related to Garcillano by marriage, said he was not certain if the president noticed Pineda handing the envelope to Icaro during the second meeting.
But in the first meeting, Arroyo was with them going up the stairs when Icaro took the envelope from Pineda. "Kasabay namin lumabas si Ma'am. It was impossible for her not to see it," he said. He added there was no reaction from the president.
Zuce recalled thanking the president for appointing Garcillano during the first meeting at La Vista.
Reacting to charges that bribe money was given out during a meeting at her home before the elections, the president earlier told ABC-5, "Ang masasabi ko walang nagbibigay ng suhol sa harap ko (All I can say is no one gives out bribes in front of me)."
This morning, Romulo Makalintal, her lawyer in the last elections, said in a radio interview that nowhere in Zuce's statement does he say the president witnessed money changing hands.
So far, though, there has been no categorical denial from the Palace and Mrs. Arroyo's supporters that such a meeting took place at her La Vista residence.
The interview with Zuce took place at a location we were told not to disclose. All the journalists present there were driven around Metro Manila for over an hour before finally being taken to the interview site. After the interview, Zuce was whisked away by the security men assigned to him. Only then were the journalists allowed to leave.
During the interview, Zuce described the president's house as old but clean. The entrance led to a corridor. The receiving area was one level down. The meeting was held at a lower level which opened out to the pool. Zuce said his group spent two hours smoking and killing time near the pool until the president arrived at 9 p.m.
Asked whether the president meant that the officials should help protect her vote or make sure she won the election, Zuce said, "Nandun na lahat. Comelec ang kaharap mo, e (She meant all of those. She was talking to Comelec officials)."
Zuce barely knew Pineda then but immediately got the impression that she was very close to the president. Seated at the head of the table during that first meeting were Dy, the President, Pineda and then Garcillano.
"May binubulong si Mrs. Pineda kay Ma'am (Baby was whispering something to GMA)," he said. It seemed like they've been friends for a long time, he added.
Zuce said the president immediately called someone on the phone when the Comelec officials in Mindanao asked for photocopiers and then passed her phone to Francisco Pobe, Agusan del Sur provincial election supervisor.
It was Pineda who volunteered to take care of the request of the election officials for vehicles. Zuce said Toyota Delicas were considered but were found insufficient. It was then agreed that the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. or Pagcor would send the vehicles, he said.
In his statement, Zuce said a breakfast meeting between Garcillano and Pagcor Chair Ephraim Genuino at the Makati Shangrila Hotel did not push through. Genuino was late and Garcillano, who was upset at the Pagcor chair's tardiness, had to rush off to a Comelec en banc meeting.
Zuce, a native of Bukidnon, said he has been a Lakas member since 1994 when he joined its youth arm as a volunteer. He was to transfer later to the National Youth Commission but returned to the party years later. He also joined Lakas' Muslim Christian Democrats, particularly the Erap Resign Movement.
After EDSA 2, Jose Ma. A. Rufino, presidential liaison officer for political affairs, asked him to work in Malacañang. Zuce said he has known Rufino even before the Erap Resign Movement.
Zuce admits he is "an ordinary staff" but said his work allowed him to get to know a lot of politicians, especially during electoral campaigns, because Rufino's office attended to their needs.
He said he also helped in the elections of leagues, referring to the organizations of governors, mayors and other public officials. He added he was often sent to Comelec to get electoral data.
Zuce said he introduced Garcillano to Rufino because his uncle had dreamt of becoming a Comelec commissioner since the time of President Fidel Ramos.
Enjoying his uncle's trust, Zuce said he became the "link" between the elections commissioner and Rufino for the 2004 elections.
Garcillano took him along to meetings, including those with the Pinedas, while Zuce helped arrange the consultations meetings with Comelec field personnel. That, he said, explained Rufino's absence in some of the meetings. "Rufino didn't have to be there because I was there," he said.
Reacting to Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos's statement that the attendance sheet he had annexed to his statement was the list of Comelec officials who attended the Comelec sportsfest in Lanao del Norte, Zuce pointed out the consultations meetings in Mindanao and in Metro Manila were precisely timed with
official activities when elections personnel would have their travel orders.
Zuce said he had no intention of coming out in the open when he quit his job last May, but changed his mind when he began receiving threats and got word that former police chief and now public works secretary Hermogenes Ebdane has been looking for him since the "Hello, Garci" controversy broke. He said he doesn't know Ebdane and feared for his and his family's safety.
Zuce said he has lost touch with Garcillano since Gloriagate. "Hawak nila. Sila ang nagpaalis doon (He's in their control; they made him leave)," he said.
But he expressed the hope that his uncle would eventually come out of hiding. "Sana ilabas niya ang katotohohan (I hope he tells the truth)," he says.