Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Chief of Comelec Law Department now ‘floating’--- because he stepped on some big toes in poll body?

Atty. Ferdinand Rafanan

The new case I write about in this blog belongs to the “What’s happening to the ‘Matuwid na Daan’ department, just like the case of DBP Chief Legal Counsel Benilda Tejada. This time it involves the Chief of the Comelec’s Law department, Atty. Ferdinand Rafanan who was removed from his post and ostensibly shifted to another assignment, the Comelec-DOJ committee that will investigate the 2004 and 2007 elections. In both these cases there could be violation of the Civil Service Law that protects the tenure of civil service officials, because there seemed to be no due process nor a just cause for removal.


Benjamin Pinpin
If you readers will recall, Atty. Benilda Tejada was removed as Chief Legal Counsel of DBP, a post she has held for years, after she began making open pronouncements defending young lawyer Benjamin Pinpin, who committed suicide because he could not take pressures from the current board of DBP to make him sign an affidavit that would purport to show that the loans of businessman Roberto Ongpin were behest. In letters to his family before he took his own life Pinpin showed the agony he was going through.

Tejada, who has the reputation of being a “tough Ilongga,” and the bank rank and file personnel appeared to be in full sympathy with their fallen colleague. She has denounced the pressures being applied on various personnel in the form of charges before the Ombudsman, in line with the new board’s efforts to pin down the old board on the Ongpin loans.


Atty. Ongkiko - Acorda
Atty. Tejada was removed from her position and the task of “spokesperson” and even of “DBP Counsel” for the  current board was given to a private lawyer, Zenaida Ongkiko-Acorda, who began holding press conferences while ostensibly representing the bank  (judging from her use of the DBP logo in statements) but from her private office. Last Thursday, Aug. 18, an ad appeared in the Inquirer signed by “Officers of the Development Bank of the Philippines” denouncing Atty. Acorda’s usurpation of those tasks. The signatories stressed the clear prohibition on the bank as a government institution, “to hire a private law practitioner WITHOUT SECURING THE APPROVAL OF THE OFFICE OF THE GOVERNMENT CORPORATE COUNSEL AND THE CLEARANCE/CONFIRMATION OF THE COMMISSION ON AUDIT” on the “CORRESPONDING FEES” (being paid to Acorda).



Sol. Gen Joel Cadiz


The case of Comelec Law Dept. Chief Ferdinand Rafanan is just as intriguing.

Yesterday a small item appeared in Philippine Star announcing that the “Lawyer in folder scam is new Comelec legal chief.” The report said that Rafanan has been replaced in the Law Department by Allen Francis Abaya, a member of the Comelec bids and awards committee (BAC) and one of six Comelec officers who were suspended for approving the highly over-priced (P690 million) contract involving “ballot secrecy folders” used in last year’s national and local elections. Since I know Atty. Rafanan, who’s also a UP graduate like myself and I’ve had him as guest in our dzRH show a couple of times in recent years, I made a quiet investigation in the Comelec.

But before this I should emphasize that Rafanan enjoys a pretty solid reputation not only in the Comelec but in the bureaucracy, and the fact that he was “replaced” by Abaya who was implicated in the big election controversy last year of the ballot secrecy folders doubtless raised eyebrows all around.


Melchor Magdamo
The Star news item said Rafanan was being “re-assigned to the Comelec-DOJ Preliminary Investigation committee” that will look into alleged frauds in the 2004 and 2007 elections, but that he was also quoted as stressing that he does not need to be removed from the law department while working on the new assignment.  It also quoted lawyer Melchor Magdamo, who was the whistleblower in the ballot secrecy folders deal, as saying that the Comelec decision to appoint Abaya as law chief is “a bad sign”---meaning, that Comelec’s move could be seen as a reward for those involved in that folder scam.

So what’s cooking at Comelec? Insiders point out that for one thing, Rafanan is correct in arguing that his assignment to the DOJ-Comelec panel is just an “additional function”---just like when he was in Law and at the same time in the bids and awards committee of Comelec; thus, he opined that he doesn’t have to be removed from the Law department. So why was he “reshuffled” by the Commission?


From what I hear from insiders, Rafanan might have stepped on some big toes at the poll body with his department’s investigation into a complaint about electoral fraud anomalies in ARMM in the last elections---which, ironically, the commissioners of the old Melo Commission had ordered him to undertake in the first place.  It seems that the old Commission did not like the results that he came up with, as the frauds involved as high as the level of director and a commissioner.

Chairman Sixto Brillantes
 Rafanan was said to have recommended criminal and administrative charges against those involved, but instead of carrying out his recommendation, the higher ups simply dismissed the complaint and disregarded the results of his investigation. What made it tough for the Law Chief is that new Comelec Chief Sixto Brilliantes, a former prominent election lawyer, appears to agree fully with the decision of the old Commission. 

I understand that Rafanan has filed a motion for reconsideration with the Comelec en banc on its decision regarding his investigation. But meantime, he remains “floating” and from his statement quoted in the Manila Times yesterday, he feels deprived of the tools that could make him more effective in his new designation to the DOJ-Comelec investigating panel. As he put it, “But I have been deprived of my supervisory powers over my staff, documents, election offense cases, legal opinion queries and other functions.”


But the twisting of the truth will always result in astonishing---if unexpected---turns.  Yesterday, the result of the separate investigation by the Commission into the ballot secrecy folder scam of May 2010 came out and Executive Director Jose Tolentino, who led the team that had handled that project, was absolved, after an earlier six months suspension with his team; but one of his people, Allen Francis Abaya---the same person who the news reports said was to replace Rafanan, was suspended all over again.

But despite this fact, insiders note that the top officials of the Comelec are still adamant against returning Rafanan to his Law post. Is it perhaps because he could uncover other anomalies in the poll body?  As they say, “Bawal ba ang gumawa ng tama sa Comelec?”

Rene Sarmiento
Comelec Chief Brillantes attempted to explain that the “re-assignment” of Rafanan is only good for three months, and that if the en banc should will it, he could return to Law.  He also hinted that it was made to calm the rift between Rafanan and his deputy, Josslyn De Mesa who, said the poll Chief, Rafanan “couldn’t stand.” Brillantes also said that contrary to impressions being given by Rafanan, it will be Commissioner Rene Sarmiento who will be temporarily running the Law department, not Abaya.


Clearly, however, there will be the perception of the arbitrary and whimsical removal of Ferdinand Rafanan as Law Chief, which violates the security of tenure  guaranteed by  the Civil Service Law (he holds the rank of Director IV in that post). As in the case of Benilda Tejada of the DBP, Rafanan’s dismissal from his post could be raised to the Supreme Court, if only to test if the Civil Service Law’s guarantee of security of tenure still holds in the land of the “matuwid na daan.” Seems to me that this road keeps getting more and more baluktot by the day.

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