Comelec saved duplicates during fire

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — THE fire that gutted the old Commission on Elections building in Intramuros, Manila, on Sunday destroyed original records of election protests going back 13 years, but most of these have duplicates in the poll body’s offices next door, the agency’s top official said yesterday.

“There is not one document that was burned that would affect our election in 2007,” Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos said as the opposition called for an independent investigation into the fire.

Also yesterday, the Marines corrected reports that said they had left their posts before the fire, saying no troops were being detailed to the Intramuros office since 2002.

Some candidates said they feared the fire was a prelude to fraud in the May 14 elections, but others cautioned against speculation.

“I think it would be better for us to wait for the results of the investigation before we make any accusations,” administration candidate Senator Ralph Recto said.

Opposition candidate Senator Panfilo Lacson agreed.

“It’s too early to judge. The BFP [Bureau of Fire Protection] has just started its investigation and pinpointed the focal point. The next step is to determine if there was an incendiary substance,” said Lacson, a former chief of police.

But Genuine Opposition candidate John Osmeña said he suspected arson because the Comelec was hiding something.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said Abalos must produce a complete inventory of documents and equipment that were destroyed.

“The burning of the Comelec office raises the alarm that vital evidence might have been burned. Chairman Abalos’ good intentions need to be proven,” he said.

But Abalos denied that the fire was part of a plot to cheat in the coming elections.

“How could you cheat in the 2007 election with the burning of records from 1995 to 2004?” Abalos said.

If the fire were deliberate and aimed at cheating in the May elections, then the arsonists should have burned the Comelec office in the nearby Palacio Del Gobernador building, where documents relevant to this year’s polls were being kept, Abalos added.

GO spokesman Adel Tamano tore into Abalos, saying he must earn the trust of the opposition before laying the incident to rest.

“The Comelec, with its vast resources and security personnel could not protect its own building, so how can we expect it to protect something as complex as our votes?” he said. “It’s really up to them to earn our trust.”

Tamano said the opposition was appalled that Comelec officials were playing down the fire.

“I want to hear them say they were ashamed because of the incident, because this happened during [their] watch,” he said.

The Manila Fire Department yesterday said it would ask the National Bureau of Investigation to step in to help determine if arson was involved.

A Marine spokesman, Lt. Col. Ariel Caculitan, said the Marines pulled out their security detachment at the old Comelec building in January 2002, so it was wrong to say that they left their posts just before the fire.

In his briefing yesterday, Abalos said the documents destroyed included original records of election cases from 1995 to 2004, including transcripts of stenographic notes.

Party-list verification reports were also destroyed, but the Comelec secretariat had copies of those, he said.

Documents related to the election protest filed by Loren Legarda against Vice President Noli de Castro were already with the Presidential Election Tribunal, Abalos said.

He said it was not Marines but in-house security guards and members of the police Special Action Forces who were guarding the building.

“They were the ones who were trying to put out the fire with fire extinguishers,” Abalos said. “Maybe they were not able to call the fire station because the phones were inside the building, and the common instinct is that you get out of a burning building, not go inside.”

In a lighter moment, Abalos said a radio program had pointed out that he had been linked to fires before.

“The market was burned when I was mayor of Mandaluyong. The city hall, too. And now when I became Comelec chairman, this happened, too. I realize this fact only now,” he said.