Comelec chief’s term cut short
- Sandy Araneta () - December 19, 2000 - 12:00am
The Commission on Elections (Comelec) will lose its chairwoman and two commissioners a year earlier than thought of. They will be out 100 days before the May 2001 elections.

And the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), which acts as the country’s poll watchdog, is afraid that this may have something to do with a multibillion-peso project Comelec Chairwoman Harriet Demetriou head had refused to sign.

In a drastic move, the Supreme Court yesterday made public its decision to cut short the term of office of Demetriou and Commissioners Teresita Dy-Liaco Flores and Julio Desamito by one year.

The three poll officials, who were earlier set to retire in February 2002, will now have to quit their posts by Feb. 2, 2001, or about 100 days before the May 14, 2001 congressional polls.

Demetriou told reporters that she did not expect the High Court’s ruling, but insisted that she would not contest it. "I may be accused of bad faith," she said.

Before the Supreme Court’s decision, Demetriou was reported as vehemently refusing to sign the contract for the awarding of the P6.5-billion Voter Registration and Identification System (VRIS), a project that involves the computerization of voter’s registration.

She continued to oppose the awarding of the project to Photokina Marketing Corp., saying the contract contained technical and legal anomalies.

Namfrel chief Jose Concepcion Jr. said the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee should look into the controversy surrounding the VRIS. He said their lawyers are considering filing charges against the head of the Comelec’s modernization committee, Commissioner Luzviminda Tancangco, because of her insistence to award the VRIS contract to Photokina.

"Even up to now, Commissioner Tancangco insists that the Comelec commissioners sign the contract (with Photokina) in spite of the decision of Chairman Demetriou," he said.

As this developed, Press Undersecretary Mike Toledo said President Estrada has no one in mind yet to replace Demetriou.

Toledo told Malacañang reporters yesterday that he has heard of allegations accusing Guia Gomez, a known mistress of the President, of having a hand in the Photokina contract. But he said he is inclined to dismiss such as mere speculations.

"There are allegations but there are no proofs," he said. "Chairman Demetriou based her recommendations (to reject the contrat) on the financial, technical and legal reasons. She recommended that the contract be suspended or held in abeyance," Toledo explained.

Demetriou dismissed rumors that she was demanding P500 million from Photokina for the VRIS project. She said that she rejected the contract after finding flaws in the project’s implementation.

She noted that if there was such money from the company, she suggests that this be donated to build houses for the poor.

Concepcion, on the other hand, urged President Estrada to immediately name a replacement for Demetriou and the two retiring commissioners since they will be quitting about 100 days before the May 14, 2001 elections.

"The new commissioners who will take their place will have only about 100 days to familiarize themselves with the preparation and other matters before the polls," he said.

Demetriou, meanwhile, said she is accepting the High Court’s ruling on her tenure and even clarified that she will be retiring on the same date with her two fellow poll officials. In a statement she issued late yesterday, she corrected her earlier announcement that she would be stepping down on Feb. 15, 2001.

"There’s life after Comelec," said the former regional trial court judge who gained prominence for sending to jail former Calauan, Laguna Mayor Antonio Sanchez for rape and murder.

"I accept the Supreme Court ruling and I am not going to challenge it. No self-respecting public official should remain in office any minute longer the moment his or her term ends. It should be over when it is over," she added.

Demetriou’s term was supposed to end on Feb. 2, 2002 along with those of Flores and Desamito. However, the Supreme Court ruled otherwise on the petition filed by Thelma Gaminde, a commissioner of the Civil Service Commission whose term, the court said, should have expired on Feb. 2 last year and not in February of this year.

The Supreme Court said that the tenure of officials of government agencies such as the Comelec commenced on Feb. 2, 1987, the date the Constitution was ratified, and not on Feb. 2, 1988. Thus, the tenure should also end a year earlier than as declared by former President Fidel Ramos.

Demetriou thanked Mr. Estrada for giving her the opportunity to serve as head of the country’s poll body. She was appointed chairman of the Comelec on Jan. 12 last year and her appointment was confirmed the next month.

The outgoing poll czar vowed to use her remaining days in office to make the Comelec ready for the coming polls. With Marichu Villanueva

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