BENJAMIN ABALOS: A LEGACY OF CONTROVERSY?
Comelec chairman Benjamin Abalos, Sr. is now in what may well be described as the “legacy phase” of his stint as an election official, and quite possibly his entire career as a government official. Set to retire from the Comelec in February next year, he has said he does not want to leave a legacy of controversy. But a legacy of controversy is what he appears to be leaving.
BY ALEXANDER MARTIN REMOLLINO
Vol. VII, No. 32, September 16-22, 2007
Commission on Elections (Comelec) chairman Benjamin Abalos, Sr. is now in what may well be described as the “legacy phase” of his stint as an election official, and quite possibly his entire career as a government official. Set to retire from the Comelec in February next year, he has said he does not want to leave a legacy of controversy.
But a legacy of controversy is what he appears to be leaving. In particular, his stint as Comelec chairman seems to be one of hopping from one controversy to another.
The National Broadband Network (NBN) contract between the Philippine government and China’s ZTE Corp. is not the least of these.
The NBN project is a $329-million contract that aims to connect government agencies throughout the Philippines through the Internet.
The deal was signed in Boao, China on April 21 –- when the government was not allowed to sign contracts because of the then-upcoming senatorial and local elections. It has become controversial for allegedly being overpriced and for supposedly having been signed without going through the proper bidding process.
Jose de Venecia III, co-founder of Amsterdam Holdings, Inc. which is one of the losing bidders in the NBN deal, has accused Abalos of offering him $10 million in exchange for backing out of the NBN deal – an accusation the Comelec chief has denied.
In a privileged speech on Aug. 29, Nueva Vizcaya Rep. Carlos Padilla said it was Abalos who brokered the deal between the Philippine government and ZTE Corp. Padilla also said Abalos was seen playing golf with ZTE officials in Manila and Shenzen. He also accused Abalos of receiving money and women in exchange for brokering the NBN deal.
Abalos has denied being the conduit for the NBN deal. He has also denied receiving money and women from ZTE executives.
However, he has admitted that some of the ZTE honchos were his “golfing buddies.” He has likewise disclosed that ZTE officials paid for his trips to China.
He has also admitted that his daughter Girlie, who runs a company that imports goods from China, is a friend of some ZTE executives.
The NBN controversy seems poised to cap what could be a government stint of more than 40 years for Abalos.
Working up the ladder of bureaucracy
The Comelec chief claims to have been born into a poor family in Pangasinan on Sept. 21, 1935. A 1957 law graduate of the Manuel L. Quezon University (MLQU), Abalos claims to have supported himself through college by working as a janitor, factory worker, and a caddy at the Wack Wack Golf and Country Club.
In 1963, Abalos ran for vice mayor of Mandaluyong, which was then part of Rizal. He lost to the scion of a political family in what he alleges to have been a fraud-ridden local election.
For the next several years he served as judge. While his record as judge is not associated with any monumental legal feat, he loves talking of how he was named as outstanding judge for 10 straight years.
In the course of his career as judge, he would meet and forge a partnership with Neptali Gonzalez, an opposition leader at that time who would eventually become Senate President.
He ran for Mandaluyong mayor in 1980. He claims to have won in the count, but says he was unable to assume his post. This, he says, is because the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos prevented him from serving as mayor.
In 1986, shortly after Marcos was ousted through a popular uprising, President Corazon Aquino appointed him as Officer-in-Charge (OIC) mayor of Mandaluyong.
He ran for Mandaluyong mayor and won in the local elections of 1988, the first local elections under the 1987 Constitution. He ran for the same post and won in the elections of 1992, 1995, and 1998 –- using up the constitutionally-mandated limit of three consecutive terms for local officials.
Up to 1991, Abalos was an active member of the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP), when he and others in a group led by Gonzalez split over Senate leadership rivalries with Sen. Edgardo Angara. He became part of the Lakas-National Union of Christian Democrats (Lakas-NUCD), which fielded former Defense Secretary Fidel V. Ramos in the 1992 presidential elections.
In 2001 Abalos was appointed chairman of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), a post he held until the following year. He takes pride in the cleanliness drive he implemented as MMDA chairman.
Abalos was appointed Comelec chairman in 2002, even as he was then a very visible leader of the Lakas-NUCD.
In February 2003, the Comelec opened a bidding process for a poll automation scheme with an approved budget of P2.5 billion ($44.48 million based on the year’s $1:P56.20 average exchange rate). Two companies –- Mega Pacific eSolutions, Inc. (MPEI) and Total Information Management Corp. (TIMC) -- fought it out in the bidding process. MPEI won with a bid of P1.2 billion ($21.35 million), P1 million lower than TIMC’s bid.
Under the deal, MPEI was to supply the Comelec with 1,191 automated counting machines to be used in the 2004 elections.
However, the contract was shortly after found to have been fraught with legal infirmities: among other things, the Comelec had awarded the contract to Mega Pacific Consortium – an entity that had not participated in the bidding process –- and MPEI did not meet eligibility requirements. The deal was thumbed down by the Supreme Court.
Abalos would court more controversy by presiding over the 2004 and 2007 elections, which were both marred by allegations of widespread fraud.
In both polls, the Comelec shied away from taking appropriate measures against two notorious electoral fraud suspects –- Virgilio Garcillano and Lintang Bedol. Abalos even defended the two election officials against their accusers without so much as the benefit of any investigation into allegations of poll fraud.
Later in 2007, Abalos finds himself accused of brokering an onerous deal between the Philippine government and China’s ZTE Corp. for an NBN project.
This controversy comes for Abalos just a few months before his retirement from his post as Comelec chairman. Bulatlat