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Brillantes: ‘This has been a lifetime ambition’

The new Comelec chief vows clean elections in ARMM

By ARIES RUFO

Sixto Brillantes Jr.

Sixto Brillantes Jr.

MANILA, Philippines – He is one of the most sought after in a field where only a few choose to practice. Politicians can be difficult clients, but he’d be the first to say the rewards are great.

Perhaps no other chairman of the Commission on Elections knows election law as much as Sixto Brillantes Jr. does. He’s been dabbling in this field for the past 25 years, in the process defending some of the country’s most powerful, moneyed and, yes, controversial politicians.

In an interview with Newsbreak, Brillantes admits he was offered a commissioner’s post in Comelec in 2001, during the waning days of the Estrada administration. He accepted the post, but his appointment papers were not released following the ouster of then President Joseph Estrada.

In a way, it is a homecoming of sorts for Brillantes. His father was a former poll commissioner, appointed by President Ramon Magsaysay, and he recalls dropping by his father’s office as a young boy.

Influenced by his father, he took up law in San Beda College and finished at the top of his class. He placed seventh in the bar.

His initial cases, predictably, were election protests handled by his father, who by then had returned to private practice. When martial law was proclaimed in 1972, Brillantes shifted to the corporate field and joined the Cojuangco group of companies headed by Marcos crony Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco.

That’s how he traces his connection with the erstwhile political kingmaker who ran—but lost—in the 1992 presidential race.

In 1987, Brillantes returned to his first love—election laws—and never turned back. It has been a hit-and-miss affair—winning clients include Estrada and President Aquino, while losing clients included the late Fernando Poe Jr and Cojuangco. (See: Brillantes clients a mixed bag: Pnoy, FPJ, Erap, Danding Cojuangco)

Newsbreak was able to interview him in his first week as chair of Comelec. At the time of the interview, one justice paid a courtesy call, a former chairman was supposed to drop by his office, and congratulatory calls from politicians kept pouring in.

Talkative to a fault, Brillantes discussed former clients, the challenges he faces, his ascent to Comelec, those who backed his appointment, and those who are concerned about it.

Below are excerpts from the interview:

Newsbreak: You were offered a Comelec job in the past.

SB: Not only offered, seriously considered. That was before Erap (Estrada) was ousted (in 2001). I was summoned to Malacañang. Danding (Eduardo Cojuangco) also called, asking if I wanted to be appointed in Comelec. I said that was what I wanted all along. There were two vacancies for the commissioner’s posts and I was one of those considered. That was in the afternoon of January 16. That night, there was a walkout from the impeachment proceeding (in the Senate).

Newsbreak: So you had your first chance in 2001.

President Noynoy Aquino campaigning.

SB: Yes, but I opted to remain quiet about it because it was aborted. My appointment papers were not released. There was no point in telling everyone about it because I returned to private practice.

Newsbreak: You were very vocal against (former Chair Benjamin) Abalos.

SB: No let- up. I felt the Comelec was being mismanaged.

Newsbreak: And now you’re in that position.

SB: We’ve buried the hatchet. In fact, he called me up to congratulate me.

Newsbreak: There’s a question on whether you could rise above the interests that you once served.

SB: Definitely, no doubt about it. I can do it. I’ve been calling them to tell them they could no longer count on my help. And that they should let me do my job. This has been a lifetime ambition.

Newsbreak: How are you going to shield yourself from your previous clients?

SB: There will be calls. I have so many friends all over the Philippines. That’s why I am announcing in my interviews, it’s okay if you will just congratulate me but the professional relationship has been terminated.

Newsbreak: So, that means you would inhibit…

SB: …from the existing cases.

Newsbreak: What about the previous cases?

SB: I will have to see. There are old cases. It is possible that my clients in ’87, ’92, ’95 are now my current clients’ rivals. So, I will inhibit in the current cases. As for the old clients, I would have to study how close the relationship I have with them. Chairman Monsod was right in saying there could be a potential conflict. Well, definitely, if you were in the practice for the past 25 years. It lies with the personality. I may be involved with politicians but I am not a politician. I treat them professionally.

Newsbreak: Would you consider it a liability, now that you are a chairman, that you had so many political clients?

Joseph Estrada

SB: Well, it’s turning out now to be a liability only because (Senator) Allan Peter is making use of such conflict of interest. But former Chairman (Christian) Monsod correctly put it: potential. There will always be a potential conflict of interest, but let me just say anybody who comes to this commission as chairman or even as commissioner  will always have a potential conflict of interest, including Chairman Monsod. He had a potential conflict of interest. He was connected to NAMFREL. It is up to the person if he would be able to segregate or separate his previous relationships.

Newsbreak: Have you divested from your law firm (Brillantes, Nachura, Navarro, Jumamil, Arcilla, Escolin, and Martinez Law Offices)?

SB: Yes. That’s the first thing I did. The Saturday I got appointed, I called up my partners for some discussion. I told them I’m withdrawing from the partnership.

Newsbreak: What is the option left for the firm?

SB: They can take election cases because I am out.

Newsbreak: But would you inhibit if your law firm is involved?

SB: Yes. I will still inhibit. Of course, I will inhibit.

Newsbreak: What about the report that Mar (Roxas) summoned you?

SB: No, Mar did not summon me.

Newsbreak: He only invited you?

SB: No. That was a Friday. I went first to talk to the NPC, I’m the general counsel of NPC, the Nationalist People’s Coalition. I said I am going to leave once I get the appointment. They said good riddance, you are free to join government.

Newsbreak: This was Danding?

SB: (Cojuangco) told me to talk to (NPC President) Frisco San Juan. (Cojuangco) said he knew I was leaving NPC. He advised me to take the post, and help the country instead of the party. It’s a very good point. I also tried to talk to (Vice President Jejomar Binay). I was also UNO (United Opposition) consultant. I told him: Boss, I know you endorsed me (for the chairmanship). If I get appointed, I’m going to leave. After that , I decided to ask for a scheduled meeting with (Senator) Manny Villar and Mar Roxas.

Newsbreak: What for?

SB: Since I talked to the political parties, I might as well talk to the other major parties.

Newsbreak: What about Estrada?

SB: I talked with Erap over the phone. We exchanged pleasantries.

Newsbreak: Did you also call Senator Villar?

SB: I haven’t talked with him.

Newsbreak: But you called Mar.

The late Fernando Poe Jr.

SB: No. I didn’t call Mar. I talked to a client of mine, (Deputy Speaker and Northern Samar Rep.) Raul Daza. He was also the former president of the Liberal Party. I asked Raul if he could set me a meeting with Mar. I am not that close to Mar.  Raul was able to set it up and we had lunch, the three of us—Mar, Raul and I.

Newsbreak: He asked you if you’d operate supposedly for potential rivals in 2016?

SB: No. He said it was good that we were able to talk. He said: “We’re not that close. We see each other during the campaign, when Noy would talk to you and I was there hanging around. Since you are being appointed, you are now being considered, I would like to know you better.” I replied I also wanted to know him that’s why I sought for the appointment.  He was very categorical. He said he is aware that I am close to Binay and Chiz Escudero. He said: “It is good we talked, to know you better. You know how it is in the political world.” I told him: “If you’re looking at 2016, I will not be there anymore. My term ends in February 2015. I will not be even involved in the 2016 preparation. Don’t worry about it. I will actually be completing my term in February of 2015, which is over a year before the next presidential elections. I will have no involvement. The only election I will get involved in is the ARMM and the midterm elections in 2013.”

Newsbreak: What about the other major political parties?

SB: Not yet. I want to talk to (Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino president) Senator Edgardo Angara also. Manny Villar I wanted to call. I got a bouquet of flowers from his wife, Cynthia (Aguilar), congratulating me. I will seek an appointment with them, as a courtesy. They are my family clients. Villar has always been my client since ’87.

Newbreak: What about the (Megapacific) PCOS machines?

SB: They cannot be used.

Newsbreak: Would you pursue the case (against Megapacific)?

SB: Definitely. We will pursue that case to get back the P700 million. It is well supported by the Supreme Court, they declared the contract null and void. The machines are already outdated. The technology is already antiquated.

Newsbreak: Would you make the source code review public?

SB: We will. Of course, it should be. In fact, the Constitution requires all of these things. The Constitution says that after every election the Comelec should come out with an official report with the results of the election. It should be part of any report. We will publish it.

Newsbreak: What about the poll operators involved in the “Hello, Garci” (wiretap scandal)? What are you going to do with them?

SB: “Hello, Garci” is already 6 years ago. I would rather look forward than look backward, but of course we are not saying that we are not going to investigate this. I’ll try to see but it is not a priority. The senatorial elections in 2013, that’s where I will concentrate on: how to fully automate; come out with a good automated system, and perfect it if necessary.

Newsbreak: Would you reshuffle?

SB: Yes. I know all the regional election officials..

Newsbreak: Have they called you (those allegedly involved in the “Hello, Garci” scandal)?

SB: No. It has been sometime since I met them. I met some of the regional directors when they were here. Some of them are my friends.

Newsbreak: You are friends with them?

SB: Yes. I’ve been with them for a long, long time. Not friends in the real sense of the word. I have not thought about it but I’d like to consider seriously what I know about them.

Newbreak: Do you think the Comelec did a good job in the 2010 automated elections?

SB: Well, the general consensus says it’s okay. And I would like to put this: we have to give this to Chairman Melo for having somehow succeeded in the automation. It may not be 100% perfect, it may not be that good—several glitches, several deficiencies—but overall it was good.

Newsbreak: How are you going to improve the automation of the polls?

SB: We’re trying to correct the minor glitches that happened. This is what I intend to do with the Smartmatic and our technical support people here.

Newsbreak: Are you leasing or renting the PCOS machines for the 2013 polls?

SB: It’s either lease or purchase. If lease, it might be costlier. If we can afford to buy the machines, we might.

Newsbreak: Is there restiveness among Comelec personnel?

SB: Only because of my constant announcement that if ever I become the Chairman, I would have to reorganize. Of course, they are worried. I am trying to clarify this by saying that we have to make some rules in the organization but it would not be a major revamp or anything, it would be more on the review of performance and some re-assignments , if needed. Reshuffling.

Newsbreak: Will we have a clean voter’s list?

SB: That is right. I had a short briefing on the registration. We are now up to 50 million registered voters; 35 Million is already under the biometrics system. We’ll have to push now with the remaining 15 million. We will now encourage registration under the biometrics system.

Newsbreak: Do you think there’s a mafia in Comelec?

SB: There are bad eggs in the Comelec. We will try to make [their heads] a little whiter.

Newsbreak: What challenges do you see?

SB: The main challenge for me is ARMM because it is the forthcoming election [It is scheduled in August – Eds}. We have to work very hard to make sure it is a success, and this is what I am going to concentrate on. If we solve the ARMM, we will be able to solve the 2013 elections. If we can fully automate and solve the problems in the ARMM, we can make use of this experience in going to the 2013.

Newsbreak: Why did it take some time to issue your appointment papers?

SB: No. No. They issued my appointment papers Saturday afternoon. I was called by the President around 4:30 in the afternoon and I went to Bahay Pangarap. He said my appointment paper was ready. Before that I submitted proposed reforms and I noticed he read them. That’s what we discussed—hasten the resolution of cases. I told the President I am more concerned about the administrative rather than judicial function. Ultimately, one final item is the automation.

Newsbreak: Is the President committed to automate 2013?

SB: Well, what he remembers is that it’s very difficult to go back to manual.

Newsbreak: He said that?

SB: No, I said it, ‘We cannot afford anymore to go back to manual.’ Unless it is crunch time, that’s the only time we’ll go back to manual. In fact, the law itself mandates that we have to be automated already.

Newsbreak: What are your expectations on the Commission on Appointments?

SB: I don’t know. All I can say is we have friends. I have not seen the list of CA members. Newsbreak, independent journalism from the Philippines

CATEGORY: Elections
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  1. If he has thrived for a long period of time doing the dirtiest legal work and yet claims he could rise above its stinking cauldron is amazing. You can already get a sense that he was trying to pull your leg. He cannot burn overnight the lucrative relationships he had with his previous clients and tell the public that he can come clean and discharge the functions of the chief aboveboard. The fact that he was appointed chief of the Comelec through PNOY, and probably with the anointment of Danding already speaks volume of a very partisan Chief at the helm. The overdrive at “public-dry cleaning” was aimed precisely to sanitize a dubious career and to dupe the public.

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