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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.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Comelec secretly re-appointed PPCRV Chair Henrietta de Villa chair of Random Manual Audit Committee for 2013, despite its poor track record in 2010. Many instances of collusion between Comelec and PPCRV should coax more bishops to withdraw support from PPCRV. P30 billion oil and P32 billion agri products smuggled challenge P-Noy’s “Daang Matuwid.”




CBCP President  and Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma (r)
and 
Antipolo Bishop Gabriel Reyes (l)

The issue of the bishops’ continuing support or withdrawing it from the Parish Pastoral Council on Responsible Voting (PPCRV) is said to have split them. Indeed PPCRV Chair and former Ambassador to the Vatican Henrietta de Villa does enjoy continued support from some bishops, despite her evident partiality to the Comelec whose credibility the bishops have assailed in their Jan. 28 Pastoral Letter.

But there is one thing that could unite the bishops in withdrawing support for De Villa. This is the fact that Comelec has re-appointed her once again in Resolution No. 9538 to chair the Random Manual Audit Committee (RMAC) of the Comelec---despite her team’s having failed miserably to carry out that most crucial task in the May 2010 elections.

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The RMAC is tasked with the critical job of conducting a MANUAL AUDIT of one precinct per congressional district RANDOMLY CHOSEN by the Comelec in each province and city (emphasis by this writer). This task is most critical since, as Comelec’s resolution stressed, any difference between automated count at precinct level and manual count by the RMAC “will result in the determination of root cause and initiate a manual count for those precincts affected by the computer or procedural error.”

The AES Law’s intention in setting up the RMAC was obviously to provide a check and balance to the automated elections of 2010 and now for 2013. But this may not happen in the coming elections because De Villa has apparently been co-opted by Comelec---PPCRV has lost its neutrality as a poll watchdog.

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This is the background: in the 2010 elections PPCRV Chair De Villa was appointed to head the RMAC, with the NSO and a Comelec audit official as members. RMAC’s mandate was that WITHIN 15 HOURS AFTER POLLS CLOSE IT WAS TO FINISH THE MANUAL AUDIT OF PRE-SECLECTED PRECINCTS ACROSS THE COUNTRY. But what happened was that the RMAC was able to conduct only a 75% audit of selected precincts, and ONLY AFTER ONE MONTH.

Moreover, as Fr.Leonido "Nonie" Dolor of the Batangas clergy, a PPCRV volunteer in that province in 2010, complained in a letter to Star columnist Bobbit Avila recently, local volunteers would not be able to "even peep" into the contents of every 4th copy of the election return (ER) from hereon, as ordered by De Villa.  Dolor argues, how can the volunteers keep tab of the results especially in the local scene, "which is really the more important aspect of our involvement?" He questions: "why this deviation from the usual practice in the past, where we could scan the ER from the precincts and send them electronically to the national HQ of the PPCRV?"

That order from De Villa was the last straw, said Fr. Dolor, and the Batangas clergy voted to pull out of the PPCRV. Something fishy indeed in her  decision to keep the content of the 4th ER copy from her own volunteers. More collusion between Comelec and the church-affiliated poll watchdog.

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Many concerned citizens are aware of the botched record of the 2010 RMAC. For instance, a group called “Government Watch” under chair Raul Concepcion came out months back with a 3/4 page ad in major newspapers emphasizing the critical role of the RMA in our elections, and openly suggesting that this task be entrusted to Namfrel for 2013, as it’s the best organized and with a long track record in elections here. Government Watch  pointedly did not recommend the PPCRV.

But DESPITE WHAT HAPPENED IN 2010, De Villa was still appointed by Comelec to head the RMAC for 2013, with Comelec Internal Audit Office OIC Agnes Carreon and NSO Administrator Carmelita Ericta as members. In re-appointing them Comelec cited their “experiences, qualifications, professionalism, and performances...for the May 10, 2010 National and Local Elections.”  But what record of performance, etc. was Comelec talking about? 

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But equally eye-brow raising was that Comelec promulgated this resolution appointing De Villa et al. last Oct. 9, 2012 yet---apparently a secret so tightly-kept secret in Comelec. WHY THE SECRECY?

What’s also alarming is that there's thIs companion Resolution No. 8800 issued by Comelec a month ago, mandating selection of precincts across the country for RMA FOUR DAYS before the May 13 elections, and disclosing those precincts TWO DAYS before the elections. How can that exercise then  be RANDOM?  Or is it only to warn poll cheats and hackers, kaunting ingat, baka kayo mabisto? 

PPCRV Chair De Villa has been issuing very generous statements of support for Comelec’s moves, in direct contravention to the position of the Bishops in their pastoral letter. Moreover, she was quoted as saying that PPCRV is “neutral” on the RH bill which the bishops vigorously oppose. It is time that they withdraw support from PPCRV and demand that it drop two words from its name---Parish Pastoral;  it should no longer use that full title to recruit volunteers from the various dioceses.

There is nothing wrong in being known as Council on Responsible Voting.  De Villa should have the delicadeza to change her organization’s name now.    

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When news about oil smuggling in the country hit the headlines, I spoke to an executive engaged in the container business about its modus operandi. He explained that the biggest way oil is smuggled is through what appears to be huge oil refineries on the high seas.  He said, imagine something like the oil refinery in Limay or Tabangao (but foreign-owned) parked in the middle of the sea, far from PH coastline.  Barges from PH (with fake bottoms to make oil transfers undetectable) come buying and they then unload the oil at the various export processing zones in our country. From there it's sold to various buyers, often using fake transaction documents, such as to some small oil players and commercial and industrial companies.

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Because they pay no taxes on the oil, they get it at much lower prices than the big players. But as Petron Chair and CEO Ramon Ang pointed out, this means a yearly loss to the government of easily P30 billion in taxes from smuggled fuel.  Pilipinas Shell country manager Edgar Chua, on the other hand, pointed to rampant smuggling as a definite deterrent to foreign investments here.  

Obviously the smuggling of oil has reached such point that forced Ang and Chua (the latter was Shell country manager of Cambodia when my husband was Philippine ambassador there in the mid-90s) to open up on it. The queries on many minds are, how can such gargantuan smuggling go unchecked? Is it possible that it can go on without strong connections? With whom are the smugglers in cahoots?

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Recall that when the Hyatt Ten led by Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima began their project to knock down their former boss, then President Macapagal Arroyo, on corruption in July 2005, smuggling was among the issues they cited.  Reports say that since July 2010, when  the Aquino administration began, the BOC has filed in the Justice Department nine cases against alleged oil smugglers, amounting to P38 billion, through its “Run After the Smugglers” (RATS) campaign.

But three years into the Aquino administration, government appears helpless to curb oil smuggling and all Secretary Purisima could say in reaction to the  headlines was that the DOF and its attached agencies have visited major district ports “to gather data.”

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In fact since the hitherto unexplained disappearance of nearly 2,000 container vans from the Batangas port in 2011, the perception is that smuggling has gone up and the administration's helplessness has seriously challenged P-Noy’s “daang matuwid” as nothing else has.

Note that for many months now talk has swirled in customs about rampant smuggling of various commodities such as rice, sugar, onions and meat/poultry products, apart from oil. In fact recently there was news about how the smuggling of rice from abroad has been hurting our rice producers, as they cannot dispose of rice stocks grown here owing to the cheaper smuggled rice, so that their warehouses are full. The agricultural sector estimates that P32 billion worth of agri products were smuggled into the country last year alone---apart from the P30 billion in smuggled fuel.

Out of delicadeza, Customs Chief Biazon should resign.




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