2 SAF cops recount grilling, bribe offers
(Second of a series)
Two members of the core group of an elite police team who were involved in the alleged switching of election returns (ERs) at the Batasang Pambansa building in 2005 claimed to have been subjected to “harsh questioning” by their superiors in the Special Action Force (SAF) and later offered bribes and monetary rewards by personalities identified with the administration of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
“The Batasan operation became an open secret in the SAF, and because of this we were subjected to ridicule and harsh interrogation by other officers of the unit. For this reason we wanted to leave and requested a transfer,” said PO2 Rudy Gahar and PO1 Norman Duco.
They said they also met with Sen. Loren Legarda, the running mate of actor Fernando Poe Jr. in the 2004 presidential election, and who, at the time of the meeting, was petitioning for a recount.
Gahar and Duco named their “interrogator” as Senior Supt. Rommel Marbil, now a member of President Aquino’s Presidential Security Group.
“Colonel Marbil interrogated us on what we knew about the operation and pressed us to give the names of those who were involved,” they said.
By then, Senior Supt. Rafael Santiago, the leader of the purported ER-switching operation, and eight members of the core group had been transferred to the Northern Police District (NPD) of which Chief Supt. Marcelino Franco was the then director.
It was Franco who allegedly ordered Santiago and his men to carry out the operation in four weekends in January-February 2005.
Gahar and Duco said their colleagues in the SAF became aloof and kept a distance from them.
“We were treated like we had the plague, and we always felt we were under surveillance. We received calls and text messages from people we did not know, asking for a meeting,” they said.
The policemen said they made known their desire to leave the SAF to Insp. Ramon Garcia, who supposedly took part in the Batasan operation and who remained in the unit.
Gahar said that in 2008, he and Duco were introduced by Garcia to Joel Pinawen, a close friend of Garcia’s who has been variously described as “glib” and “an influence-peddler.”
“Pinawen told us he could help us get a transfer order and could provide us P20,000 a month if he will be posted in a juicy position using our information as leverage,” Gahar said.
He and Duco said the personalities they subsequently met with were all selected by Pinawen, who became their patron.
“We met with both sides,” Gahar said, naming Senator Legarda and lawyer Harry Roque from the opposition, and Presidential Anti-Smuggling Group (PASG) Chair Antonio “Bebot” Villar, then Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan and Chief Supt. Mariano Ele from the administration.
Contacted by the Inquirer, Legarda confirmed having had a meeting with Pinawen and Duco. She also said the meeting was about evidence on the switching of ERs at the Batasang Pambansa building.
“I confirm that I met with Pinawen and the policemen, but I declined their offer. They were selling video footage to show evidence of cheating,” Legarda said, adding:
“I refused to buy the evidence of the cheating. I don’t want to taint my electoral fight by bought evidence. I told them that if they have evidence of cheating, they should bring it to the Supreme Court.”
Gahar also said that while he and Duco had no face-to-face meeting with then Surigao Rep. Prospero Pichay, the latter made an offer to them through Pinawen.
“Pichay supposedly promised us a vehicle and a house and lot,” Duco said.
After their release from the SAF, the two policemen briefly worked for the PASG and reported to Villar’s office in Malacañang.
Gahar said Villar asked him and Duco several times “to narrate our story,” and “treated us like royalty, [so much so] that we became the envy of other PASG operatives.”
He said they left the PASG because of an incident involving Pinawen and other operatives of the unit.
After their stint at the PASG, Gahar and Duco worked as Pinawen’s personal body guards.
“But we left because he became arrogant when we were with him, and we realized he was using us for his personal interest,” Gahar said. “It was at that point that we decided to contact our former CO (commanding officer, Santiago) and asked to be taken in.”
Gahar said their requests were granted, and they reported to Santiago at the NPD headquarters.
Santiago was detailed at the NPD until late in 2008, and then assigned as director for intelligence of the National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) under Chief Supt. Leopoldo Bataoil for a few months.
He was relieved when the new NCRPO head was assigned.
In January 2010, Santiago was pulled out of his “floating status” and assigned as police director of Zambales province, where Hermogenes Ebdane Jr., a former director general of the Philippine National Police, among other posts, ran and won as governor.
Santiago said that based on the order, he was relieved on July 7 but that he found out about it only on July 18.
“I was having a command conference when I received a call from the regional office saying that I had been relieved. No explanation was provided.” Santiago said.
He said he asked Ebdane about his sacking by text message, and that the latter replied with “a short and vague message.”
Santiago told the Inquirer that the order to switch ERs in 2005 was issued by then PNP Director General Ebdane through then SAF chief Franco.
Repeated attempts on Thursday by the Inquirer Northern Luzon to contact Governor Ebdane were futile. No staffer of Ebdane wanted to talk to the Inquirer, except to say that the governor was not around.
But in an interview in 2008 with then Public Works Secretary Ebdane in one of his visits to Valenzuela City to inspect the repair of the Tullahan Bridge, he denied having ordered Franco and Santiago to mount the ER-switching operation in 2005.
“No, it’s not true. Pinagtagpi-tagping kwento lang yan (It’s just a made-up story),” Ebdane told the Inquirer.
Franco also denied involvement in the ER-switching operation in in a phone interview in April 2008. By then he had retired from the service
“I do not know anything about it and I do not think about it, he told the Inquirer.
Asked to explain his statement, he said: “I do not think about it because I did not do it.”
As the SAF chief, Franco was among those mentioned in reports as having supported the failed mutiny on Feb. 23, 2007.
While the other officers involved, including then Brig. Gen. Danny Lim, were arrested, Franco was not taken in custody and was able to retire from the service in the same year with all his benefits intact.
Father and son
Santiago had also implicated Roque Bello, a former election supervisor, and the latter’s son, El Bello, in the switching of ERs.
Bello agreed also in 2008 to be interviewed by phone, and vehemently denied that Ebdane had tapped his and his son’s services in the 2005 operation.
“No one approached us,” Bello said, adding with a laugh that they could not be so influential as to be thus approached “when we could not even make myself win when I ran for mayor in the 2007 elections.”
Bello said his son represented and helped him in all election-related cases that he handled after he retired from the Commission on Elections in 1986.
“He is my administrative officer and he talks to clients and makes the follow-up in all the election cases I handled after I retired,” the father said.
“How can we do that (be involved in ER-switching at Batasang Pambansa) when the place is being guarded by the military?” he said.
In a brief interview with reporters at the Comelec main office in Manila on Thursday, Bello again denied Santiago’s claim that the fake ERs were manufactured at his residence in Cainta, Rizal province.
“I don’t know anything about it. You want to verify it? If you go to the front of my house, you’d already see what’s inside. If I will do something bad, will I do it there? I don’t think so,” he said.
Bello said he and his son El were “ready to face any investigation” into Santiago’s allegations of cheating. With a report from Jerome Aning