Overwhelmed by the controversy surrounding his appointment, former Lanao del Norte Rep. Macabangkit Lanto has declined his appointment as election commissioner.
Lanto on Monday sent a letter to President Aquino conveying his decision. “With deep regret, I respectfully decline my appointment as a member of the Comelec [Commission on Elections],” he said in the letter dated March 9.
“After a thorough consultation with my family, I have arrived at this decision, owing in large part to the controversy that surrounded my appointment,” he said.
Lanto, 70, is a nominee of Sen. Franklin Drilon, campaign manager of the Liberal Party (LP) coalition’s Team PNoy, who is gunning for a 12-0 sweep of the senatorial elections.
The United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) had wanted Malacañang to withdraw Lanto’s appointment, saying Drilon should apologize for allegedly misleading the President on Lanto’s background.
Unseated as congressman for alleged poll fraud, Lanto is also accused of coercing election inspectors in Lanao del Sur in the 2007 elections. The offense is punishable by disqualification from holding public office and up to six years in prison.
The Comelec law department has recommended to the commission en banc that Lanto’s case on alleged coercion be dismissed apparently for lack of probable cause.
“Complainants failed to sufficiently establish (Lanto’s) presence more so his participation in the incident… The complaint against respondent Macabangkit Lanto is hereby dismissed for lack of probable cause,” said the 10-page recommendation dated Jan. 12, 2008.
The Comelec en banc would have the final say on the case.
Malacañang on Monday welcomed Lanto’s withdrawal of his appointment to the Comelec, calling it a demonstration of personal delicadeza (sense of propriety).
“The highest consideration for the country is to restore confidence in the electoral system. Mr. Lanto’s decision to withdraw as commissioner of the Comelec is a demonstration of personal delicadeza and gives the President an opportunity to make a new appointment to the position,” Undersecretary Abigail Valte, deputy presidential spokesperson, said in a statement.
As of 1 p.m. on Monday, Valte said Malacañang had not received a copy of Lanto’s letter manifesting his rejection of the appointment.
She did not respond when asked whether Malacañang had talked Lanto into withdrawing from the appointment in view of the criticisms.
On Sunday, Valte defended Lanto from opposition criticisms that he had been recommended to the Comelec to commit fraud and ensure victory for Team PNoy senatorial candidates.
“You know, those fears are unfounded and unsubstantiated. They’re saying [the administration wants] a 12-0 sweep, implying cheating. That’s unsubstantiated. There’s no truth to those allegations,” Valte said over government-run radio.
The President announced the appointments of Lanto and Bernadette Sardillo as replacements for retired Election Commissioners Rene Sarmiento and Armando Velasco in Davao City on Thursday.
Sardillo declined her appointment for personal reasons, while Lanto’s appointment was greeted with criticism over his possible role in electoral fraud.
In the face of criticism, Malacañang said on Friday it was reviewing Lanto’s appointment after belatedly learning that the former congressman of Lanao del Norte’s second district was removed from his congressional seat in 1994 for electoral fraud.
The House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET) ruled that Lanto appeared to have been a beneficiary of fraud, citing two falsified certificates of canvass, which had been derived from tampered election returns.
Valte said Malacañang would announce new appointees in place of Lanto and Sardillo “at the appropriate time.”
Incessant media focus
While reiterating that he did not commit electoral fraud, Lanto acknowledged that the “incessant media focus” on his HRET case 20 years ago made the past few days difficult for him and his family.
“The case overshadowed my public service record and as a result, I will find it extremely difficult to pursue my advocacy for electoral reforms in the Comelec,” he said.
“I maintain that I was the victim, not the perpetrator of electoral fraud,” Lanto added.
Lanto hit back at his critics for ignoring his 30 years of government service and for questioning his reputation based solely on the electoral protest case.
Proud of record
“I have been in government service for more than 30 years, holding high and sensitive positions in the bureaucracy, and never was I ever involved in any case of fraud, corruption or misconduct. I am proud of my public service record,” Lanto said.
He claimed that his appointment to key government positions by Presidents Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the past have gone through background investigations. “[I] passed the scrutiny with flying colors,” he said.
But despite his decision to reject the appointment, Lanto assured Aquino that he would pursue reforms in the electoral process in his personal capacity.
Lanto’s refusal to accept the post of election commissioner may have spared the Palace from a measure of controversy, but UNA said the administration still had some explaining to do.
Be frank Frank
UNA said Malacañang’s Cabinet search committee still had to account for why it apparently overlooked Lanto’s alleged poll fraud case before choosing him to be the next Comelec commissioner.
UNA secretary general Toby Tiangco said Drilon also had his own explaining to do and could not just untangle himself from the controversy.
“Although we commend Macabangkit Lanto’s decision to graciously decline his appointment to the Comelec, the story does not just end there. Drilon should also explain his role in the selection process,” Tiangco said in a statement.
He reiterated UNA’s allegation that the LP wanted to have its own people in the poll body to ensure the party’s victory in the forthcoming elections.
At the Team PNoy sortie in Gumaca, Quezon, Drilon said linking his recommendation of Lanto to the Comelec to a plot to control the poll body was hogwash (kalokohan).
“It’s unfortunate it happened,” Drilon said of reports linking Lanto to poll fraud in previous elections.
But to say that he himself was laying the ground for control of the Comelec by the administration “is malicious” and “a lie” that could be blamed on “politics,” the senator said.
Drilon acknowledged recommending Lanto initially in 2012. “That’s not denied.” The senator said he “did not see the case (against Lanto) at the time” he made the recommendation. “I did not know the details …. I did not know that it was fraud. I did not know that.”
As things stand, Drilon said he had no plans to recommend another individual to the Comelec.
Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. expressed surprise over Lanto’s decision to turn down his appointment, saying “I thought all along that he was going to fight for it and clear his name.”
He said he believed that Lanto’s HRET case should have died down since it happened two decades ago.
The poll chief said he was hoping that it would not take long for the President to find two new appointees. “Hopefully, within another 10 days,” he said.
Brillantes said that while the Comelec was in the implementation stage of the election preparations, the two new commissioners would be a big help in dispensing pending cases in the poll body.
The Comelec-Employees’ Union, meanwhile, pushed again its two nominees for the vacant posts—Comelec planning department head Ferdinand Rafanan and election officer Alexander Pilotin of Santiago City, Isabela.—With a report from Leila B. Salaverria