Abalos resigns

- Sheila Crisostomo -

Hounded by allegations of corruption in connection with the broadband deal with a Chinese firm, Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Benjamin Abalos jumped the gun on a looming impeachment by resigning yesterday.

Abalos emphasized he would fight his tormentors and “expose all the lies” against him.

“I’m resigning ... effective immediately,” a teary-eyed Abalos told a news conference at his Mandaluyong residence where hundreds of friends and supporters gathered, including former President Corazon Aquino. The Comelec chairman is set to retire on Jan. 31 next year. He assumed the top Comelec post in 2001.

His wife Corazon and son Mandaluyong Mayor Benhur Abalos were at his side when he made the announcement.

“Let not my detractors feast on this declaration. I’m not admitting guilt for any wrongdoing,” he said.

Hours after his resignation, Abalos was seen at a restaurant in Mandaluyong with Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya Jr., and National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales.

Abalos and the Palace officials were at Max’s restaurant at Liberty Commercial complex along Shaw Boulevard. The resigned Comelec chief was accompanied by his wife, daughter Girlie and grandchildren.

Asked in an ambush interview if they were sent by President Arroyo, Ermita said they went to see Abalos just to “wish him good luck.”

Abalos for his part said he was surprised by the visit.

“In these few days of reflection and consultation I’ve had with my family and closest friends, I have come to the painful determination that the time has come to separate my person from the office I now occupy, and the institution I head. I am resigning the chairmanship of the Comelec effective immediately,” he said.

“We requested him to quit for the sake of the family because his critics have become vicious and malicious,” Abalos’ wife Corazon said.

“We know that my husband is good-hearted and we stand by him,” she said. “Why don’t they look at a mirror first before making judgment?” she asked.

“I am willing to face any and all charges that would be filed against me,” Abalos said, adding his resignation showed he was not using the Comelec office to shield himself.

“I know that this will open the door for cases to be filed against me but I am willing to face all of them in any forum. This is not surrender. We are taking one step backward, two steps forward here,” he said.

The Comelec chief said his decision was also meant to spare the poll body from further “malicious” attacks. “On the 29th of this month we will have another election. It is my intention that with my resignation today I shall have detached the Comelec from the controversy in which my person is currently embroiled,” he said.

Abalos said he had not discussed his decision with the President and said his resignation would “negate the accusation that this administration is out to protect me and my incumbency.”

“As I bow out of public office, I find comfort in the thought that at the end of even the longest nights, the dawn will break,” Abalos said.

Mrs. Aquino for her part said she felt pity for Abalos and recalled how the former Comelec chairman stood by her side when her administration dealt with coup attempts in the 80s and 90s.

“There was also a time in our life when some people did not want to be seen with us,” the widow of Ninoy Aquino said.

Comelec commissioners expressed surprise at Abalos’ resignation. “We were all taken aback. We were surprised by his decision,” Commissioner Florentino Tuason said.

Abalos’ troubles began when he was accused of brokering for ZTE Corp. of China for the $329-million national broadband network project.

Former National Economic and Development Authority director general Romulo Neri said Abalos offered him P200 million in exchange for his endorsement of the NBN deal.

Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr.’s son and namesake Joey III also accused the Comelec chairman of trying to bribe him with $10 million to make him withdraw his own broadband proposal.

An earlier column in The STAR by Jarius Bondoc told of a ranking poll official’s wheeling and dealing for ZTE, including his expensive trips to China and his dalliance with young local women given to him as gifts by grateful ZTE executives.

Rep. Carlos Padilla, in a privilege speech, later said that it was Abalos who was being alluded to by Bondoc.

The scandal reached fever pitch when it was investigated by the Senate, where Neri and Joey III confirmed to senators Abalos’ bribe offers.

It was the damning Senate testimonies of the two that became the basis for an impeachment complaint filed by Iloilo Vice Gov. Rolex Suplico. Prominent House members have endorsed the impeachment complaint.

Abalos lawyer Gabriel Villareal said yesterday he is set to file perjury and a P10-million libel case against Neri. He said a similar libel suit is being readied against Joey III.

Neri told ABS-CBN that his “lawyers would handle that,” referring to the forthcoming perjury and libel case.

Speaker de Venecia said Abalos’ resignation spared the country “a protracted, contentious and potentially divisive impeachment process.”

“Thank God, the impeachment case is now moot and academic and will now be behind us,” De Venecia said.

He said the lawmakers’ energies should now be focused on “consolidating our economic gains over these last 18 months.”

No way out

House opposition leaders said Abalos would have been impeached anyway had he not resigned.

“I think he would have been impeached. I have been informed by (Iloilo Vice Gov.) Rolex Suplico that some leaders of the majority were already gathering the needed number of signatures to send his impeachment complaint to the Senate for trial,” Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora told reporters.

He said Suplico, who was an opposition congressman in the previous Congress, even named the majority members in the House who were rooting for Abalos’ impeachment.

“I know them and I have no doubt that they will deliver on their commitment. They were confident of getting the required number of signatures before this coming weekend,” he said. He declined to name names.

He added that the minority would have contributed 30 to 31 signatures to get the Abalos case to the Senate.

The House has 240 members. It would require one-third, or 80 members, to send an impeachment complaint to the Senate for trial.

The House was expected to vote for Abalos’ impeachment out of loyalty to its leader Speaker De Venecia, whose son implicated Abalos in the bribery allegations.

The Speaker promised to observe impartiality in an impeachment trial but ruled out inhibiting himself as demanded by Abalos’ camp.

“More than Chairman Abalos’ family, I think Mrs. Arroyo is behind this resignation. She cannot afford a protracted impeachment process here in the House and a trial in the Senate where all the dirt in the ZTE-NBN deal could be raked up and could lead to Malacañang,” Zamora said.

However, he said the decision of the Comelec chief was unlikely to put an end to the controversy surrounding the NBN deal.

“The Senate will certainly pursue its inquiry into this scandal, and we in the House want to conduct a separate investigation, but Mrs. Arroyo and her Cabinet officials are ignoring us,” he added.

Over the weekend, Zamora said Mrs. Arroyo’s congressmen-allies would most likely “sacrifice” Abalos to prevent the ZTE-NBN scandal from reaching Malacañang’s doorsteps. “He will be the sacrificial lamb,” he said.

He said the President’s allies were ready to impeach the Comelec chief “to take the heat off GMA in this controversy.”

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said Abalos’ resignation was in “deference to public interest” and “sets a welcome precedent” for public officials involved in controversies.

The Bicolano congressman, who heads the House appropriations committee, also clarified that Abalos’ resignation “is neither an admission of culpability nor an excuse for impunity.”

“Abalos’ resignation liberates the House from another time consuming and contentious impeachment proceeding which may end up as an exercise in futility because of his impending retirement in February 2008,” Lagman added.

Zamboanga Rep. Maria Isabel Climaco said that with Abalos’ resignation, it’s now up to Suplico to pursue a case against the poll chief with the Sandiganbayan.

“It’s (resignation) a sense of fulfillment as we have achieved the goal in bringing the sentiments of the members of the House and civil society not only of the city I am representing but also the country as a whole,” Climaco said.

But government prosecutors declined to comment on the possibility that criminal charges might be filed against the elections chief.

“I don’t want to comment yet. We will just act on the case when the time comes,” Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Igancio told The STAR in a phone interview.

He also declined to comment if they could file the case against Abalos motu propio, or on their own.

Speaking from Paris, France, Mrs. Arroyo’s former elections lawyer Romulo Macalintal said he was “saddened” by Abalos’ decision, saying it’s  “a price of public service.”

“He is the best person to know that it is time to resign. All the accusations against him could only be assuaged with the balm of clear conscience,” Macalintal said in a text message. “He is still entitled to be presumed innocent. I wish that the Comelec could soon regain its credibility.”

“It’s a show of delicadeza,” Mara Bautista, executive director of the Bulacan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said of Abalos’ resignation. ­ With Marichu Villanueva, Non Alquitran, Jess Diaz, Sandy Araneta, Roel Pareño, Delon Porcalla, Dino Balabo, Jun Elias, Rainier Allan Ronda, and AP





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