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Brillantes’ brilliance fading away

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When President Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III appointed Sixto S. Brillantes Jr., a well-known election lawyer, as Chairman of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) last January 16, 2011, many considered it a brilliant choice for the powerful post.  However, recent events have ignited a maelstrom of controversy during his Commission on Appointments (CA) confirmation hearings to serve the unexpired term of former Comelec Chairman Carmelo Melo, which ends in 2015.

Brillantes -- who received his law degree from San Beda College and placed seventh in the 1965 bar examinations -- is the son of Sixto Brillantes Sr. who served as Comelec Chairman from 1956-1965 during the Magsaysay, Garcia, and Macapagal administrations.  From 2000 to 2005, Brillantes Jr. served as president of the SBC Law Alumni Association.  He is also a Certified Public Accountant.

*“Star” election lawyer

Following the footsteps of his father, the brilliant young Brillantes developed a keen interest in the Philippine election system.  He became an election lawyer representing politicians of various political backgrounds.  His clients include former president Joseph “Erap” Estrada, the late movie action hero and presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr., and the notorious Ampatuan family of which some members including the family patriarch are now on trial for the Maguindanao massacre.  

In the May 2010 elections, Brillantes -- the “star” election lawyer -- represented the Liberal Party in its bid to be declared the “dominant minority party” by Comelec.  He also served as P-Noy’s legal counsel during the canvassing of the votes.  

*Balay vs. Samar

When Melo resigned as Comelec Chairman, the two warring factions backing P-Noy were pushing their own candidate for Melo’s unexpired term.  The “Balay” faction of Mar Roxas, P-Noy’s defeated vice presidential running mate, rooted for veteran election lawyer Romulo Macalintal while the “Samar” faction supported Brillantes.  Although the “Samar” faction supported P-Noy for president, it did not support Mar Roxas who was P-Noy’s running mate.  Instead, it supported Roxas’ rival, Jejomar “Jojo” Binay, who won the vice presidency.   

Macalintal is a good and experienced election lawyer; however, he carries an “excess baggage” -- he was former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s election lawyer.  But Brillantes carries an “excess baggage,” too.  He’s perceived to have close ties to Binay who recommended him for the Comelec post, a situation that didn’t bode well for Roxas who at that time was contesting Binay’s vice presidential electoral victory before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal.  

In the end, P-Noy threw his support behind Brillantes and appointed him to the post. 
*Confirmation roadblock

During Brillantes’ CA confirmation hearing last April 2011, Senate Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano put a roadblock accusing Brillantes of attempted bribery and blackmail.  Cayetano claimed that Brillantes “dangled” the case of his wife, Taguig City Mayor Lani Cayetano, in exchange for Cayetano’s approval of his confirmation.  Cayetano said that Brillantes threatened to push through the electoral protest against his wife filed by Fredie Tinga -- a former client of Brillantes -- if he refused to meet up with Brillantes.  Cayetano alleged that Brillantes sent at least five to seven emissaries – including some congressmen – to convince him to meet with Brillantes.  But Cayetano refused to meet with him.

Last June 9, the CA adjourned sine die without confirming Brillantes, which was tantamount to a rejection. A few days later, Malacañang announced that P-Noy was going to reappoint him.  Cayetano asked Malacañang to reassess reappointing Brillantes, saying that there were individuals with unquestionable integrity and no “conflict of interest” who are qualified for the Comelec top post.  He also said, “We have to find out which of the two kinds of lawyers is Brillantes. And if he is the kind who is involved in cheating, why make him chairman?”  But Brillantes stood his ground, saying that repeated objections by Cayetano were not enough to force him to quit.

On July 2, 2011, P-Noy reappointed Brillantes.  

*Unexpected issues

Little did Brillantes realize that more issues would be raised against him at the new confirmation hearing.  Cayetano’s objections in previous confirmation hearings were no longer the only issues.  When the confirmation hearing resumed last September 14, Atty. Ferdinand Rafanan, head of Comelec’s Planning Department, filed a strong opposition against Brillantes’ confirmation.  Rafanan alleged that Brillantes illegally removed him as chief lawyer due to his refusal to be “induced” by Brillantes to influence a certain Asryman Rafanan in the Office of the Ombudsman -- whom Brillantes thought Ferdinand was related to but was not -- to reduce the six-month suspension of three of the six Comelec officials linked to the P690-million ballot-secrecy folder scam during the May 2010 elections.  Rafanan also claimed that Brillantes bragged that he had bribed Comelec commissioners and lawyers in the past.

Other issues raised against Brillantes include discrepancies between his income tax returns and his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net worth (SALN).  Sen. Franklin Drilon said that Brillantes’ taxable income from 2006 to 2010 was only P5.4 million but his SALN for 2009 showed P25.4 million.  In his SALN, Brillantes listed among his assets the following:  a house worth P3.1 million, a residential lot valued at P1.08 million, cars worth P2.3 million, personal items worth P3 million, and around P15.5 million in investments and deposits.

*“Hello, Sixto”

Drilon and Cayetano also alleged that Brillantes paid multi-million-peso pensions to indicted former Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos and promoted the poll manipulators – known as the “Garci Boys” – to higher and powerful positions at Comelec.  With the elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) likely to proceed soon and the “Garci Boys” still around, a repeat of the “Hello, Garci” election cheating operation in Mindanao in 2004 could possibly happen again.  Many are wary and suspicious that the elements of a “Hello, Sixto” election cheating operation – similar to “Hello, Garci” -- could exist under the leadership of Brillantes.

*Time to quit

Last September 21, the CA deferred Brillantes’ appointment for the fourth time.  There are still many issues that need to be addressed.  He has another chance to redeem himself on October 5.  But if he is not confirmed by the time Congress adjourns on October 15, he will be deemed “bypassed.”

It seems that Brillantes’ brilliance is fading away.  Tired and weary, he recently told the media,  “I will tell the President to not reappoint me. It’s not worth it; I will tell him to name somebody else.” But why wait for the axe to fall?  In my opinion, it’s time for him to call it quits. Like they say, “Quit while you’re ahead.”

At the end of the day, good governance is not about brilliance; it’s all about honesty.  And the people deserve no less.

By Perry Diaz




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