Cover Story

Man of the Hour

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It’s barely 7 in the morning, but already, the white-haired, barong-clad chair of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has slipped quietly into his office, a couple of bodyguards trailing him. Another workday has begun.

After a simple fast-food breakfast and a cup of coffee, Sixto Brillantes Jr. settles in at his office on the eighth floor of the old Palacio del Gubernador building in Intramuros, Manila, and attacks the voluminous paperwork waiting on his desk.

But election fever has set in, and the Comelec chief finds himself swamped with phone calls from the media and voicing out his views on election-related issues-from the gun ban and “epal” politicians to the controversial precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines.

“My work schedule has been altered,” he says. “It used to be that I could review these papers in peace. Now my cellphone rings nonstop so I am compelled to stay late to finish my work.”

Still, the job has been “okay, so far,” says the Comelec chair. “Problems are expected,” he adds.

That is, until the Supreme Court recently issued its fourth adverse ruling against the election body. In an unexpected move, the High Court last month issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the Comelec decision to limit the airtime for radio and TV ads among candidates in the May 13 election.

INQUIRER/NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

Earlier, the high tribunal issued a TRO against the Comelec when it ordered the Bacolod diocese to take down its “Team Buhay/Team Patay” tarpaulin endorsing several candidates while damning others based on their position on the reproductive health bill.

The Supreme Court also remanded to the Comelec the cases of partylist groups that the election body had already disqualified, as well as the controversial 2010 mayoralty case in Imus, Cavite.

Brillantes says the “adverse rulings (are) part of the (job). I’m a lawyer so I understand the process.”

But, he adds, “I am really disappointed with the [recent ruling] which is not really a ruling on the merit of the case. The SC issued a TRO which does not really say whether the Comelec was right or wrong [in implementing the regulations on airtime]. It tied our hands. It seems to tell us that we should shut up, we should not act. We’re kept hanging, we’re kept in limbo. Huwag naman sana ganoon. Meron akong konting tampo at naiinis nang konti (It’s heartbreaking) and I have some apprehensions about the procedure. I just hope they follow the process. As a lawyer, I am used to either losing or winning. I have high respects for the SC but I hope they avoid issuing rulings that are temporary in character. They should make a final decision and we will follow.

So hurt was he about the most recent adverse ruling that he had thought about resigning. “Kung ganito lang din, baka ako minamalas. Alis na lang ako kasi baka may tampo sa akin ang SC (If things continue, I might as well leave because the Supreme Court might be having problems with me). I am still thinking about [leaving my post].”

STOIC: “It’s part of the job,” Brillantes says of adverse rulings from the Supreme Court.

But after giving himself a weekend to consider his options, the Comelec chief has decided to stay, saying he could not abandon his post at this crucial point.

“Hindi ko iiwanan ang buong sambayanang Pilipino, not at this stage,” he says.

Brillantes maintains that despite his disappointment, he remains “respectful of the court.”

“This is just a small issue. It just so happened that it involves the highest court of the land. It’s just my personality to really say what I don’t like. It’s not a sign of disrespect for the court.

“The most crucial part of my job was preparing for the elections, particularly the technical aspect. We are studying the IT (aspect). But we are already winding up the process.”

But then again, dealing with election cases is the least of his job, he reveals. The election chief compares his two-year-old job to that of an executive running a big corporation with some 7,000 employees. “The focus is personnel, finance and administrative,” he adds.

For two decades, the 73-year-old Brillantes spent his life in heated courtroom debates and in the frenzy of lawyering for some of the most controversial and compelling figures in the country who had vied for hotly-contested government posts in previous elections.

As an election lawyer practicing since 1985, he was not exactly an outsider looking in when he was appointed in January 2011 to the helm of the election body.

“Too bad for them, the chairman is Ilocano,” quips Brillantes. PDI/Richard Reyes

Exposed to the dirtiest tricks of the trade, Brillantes knew where the dark and rotten corners are, and how to bring them to light. Now, he has begun fixing the loopholes he so enjoyed while still in the lucrative practice of election law.

“What else am I supposed to do? Isn’t it to implement reforms? Because I know what is happening in the Comelec when I was still outside (the organization),” he says.

First on his to-do list was trimming the commission’s P3 billion worth of unliquidated advances to less than a billion.

Barely warming his seat, the poll chief sent demand letters to Comelec personnel who have failed to settle cash advances over the years, ordered the suspension of some and reprimanded others. One employee with unliquidated cash advances of more than P48 million was fired.

But, he admits, some debts from 15 to 20 years ago just had to be written off. He had to clean up the books quietly, he says, because he did not want to embarrass the commission nor did he want to brag about it. “So far, that’s it. I haven’t really achieved much yet,” Brillantes concedes.

But a former colleague at the Comelec says otherwise.

According to retired Election Commissioner Rene Sarmiento, Brillantes played a big role in the crackdown on bogus organizations and the massive cleanup of the party-list system—a first since its introduction in 1995.

THE MAN AND THE MACHINE: Brillantes inspects the PCOS machines for this year’s automated election. PDI/Arnold Almacen

“If I had pushed for it alone, it won’t take off because I’d be facing a lot of opposition,” says Sarmiento. “But it was implemented because the Chair was there… he was very supportive.”

The purging and the screening of so-called party-list organizations according to the standards laid down by the Constitution and the partylist law took months of hearings, review and intense debate.

In a previous interview, Brillantes said the partylist system has become a joke, infested with fake organizations or nominees who were either multimillionaires or members of powerful political clans who were using the system as a backdoor to win coveted seats in Congress.

Even the Comelec has not been spared from shady maneuverings. “It’s a room-to-room practice. Instead of arguing it in the session hall, (the nominees) talk to individual commissioners so they can get an accreditation,” he explains.

The cleansing of partylist groups and subsequent raffle on how their names would appear on the actual ballot have ruffled feathers as well.

One fuming partylist lawmaker, Anad Representative Pastor Alcover Jr., even accused Brillantes of being crazy and sought a House inquiry into his mental fitness to head the commission.

But the stern-faced poll chief is unperturbed. “When I was still a practicing lawyer, I fight to the death (for) all my cases. And that’s what I’m going to do here in the commission. When I feel that what I am doing is right, I don’t really care what the world thinks. Bahala na sila sa mundo,” he declares.

The hands-on chief has also stirred the Comelec into making an unconventional choice: to switch from the use of metal padlocks to serial-numbered plastic seals to secure ballot boxes in the May 13 balloting.

“The idea came from the Chair. It is also part of the electoral reforms he wants to implement,” notes Sarmiento, who recently retired from the commission after completing his seven-year term.

According to Brillantes, while metal padlocks were more expensive, they were also very easy to tamper with.

“I’ve seen so many operators [play] with these padlocks. I’ve seen so many things done during my practice… so I (know) padlocks are worthless. They are mere decorations and they don’t really protect the ballot boxes,” he explains.

For making the switch, the Comelec saved more than P15 million. “Too bad for them, the chairman is Ilocano,” quips Brillantes.

The Comelec official’s penny-pinching ways should not come as a surprise.

As the fourth child in a brood of five born to Ilocano parents, Brillantes learned the value of proper and wise spending early on.

As a young boy, he saw how his father, the late Comelec Commissioner Sixto Brillantes, Sr., whom he holds in high esteem, lived a modest life and battled the usual temptations that lure people who wield power.

With the family living mainly on his father’s practice, the simple life worked best, says Brillantes.

He explains that they all managed to attend private schools only because their mother, Azucena, a pharmacist who became a full-time homemaker, sold portions of a piece of land she had inherited from her parents during those difficult years.

Brillantes recalls his mother taking frequent trips to her hometown in Cabugao, Ilocos Sur, around enrollment time. She had quietly been selling what little she had inherited to provide for their tuition.

The elder Brillantes was an assemblyman of the 2nd District of Ilocos Sur and became governor before he was appointed an election commissioner.

But though his father spent many years in government, including a nine-year stint with the Comelec, the younger Brillantes says he did not see any “improvement” in the way they lived. “It was always simple (living),” he recalls.

“That’s what I learned from the old man—to be honest and simple even when in power,” he says, acknowledging his father’s portrait mounted in one of the walls of his office.

The elder Brillantes in the portrait looks grim, as if keeping a tight watch on the son who had tried to escape his destiny to become one of the best election lawyers in the country and eventually, the chief of the commission he had served well.

When he became old enough to dream, the young Brillantes vowed to himself that his life would be better than his father’s. So after graduating from high school, he took up accounting at San Beda College, in the belief that “that was where the money was.”

In 1960, he earned his commerce degree and subsequently passed the certified public accountant licensure exam. But his father had other plans for him.

Hesitantly and on his father’s prodding, Brillantes took up law, also at San Beda College. Four years later, he graduated class valedictorian and placed seventh in the bar. His first job was at the Court of Appeals as a legal researcher.

After his father’s long stint at the Comelec and two years after his sterling performance at the bar exam, the father and son tandem put up a small law firm in Escolta. “Even if I really didn’t like practising election law, circumstances pushed me to it,” says Brillantes.

But after five years as his father’s junior partner, the two arrived at a mutual decision to close shop. His father was growing older and weaker, while he had gotten married to the late Francisca Verde, a nutritionist-dietician whom he met through a common friend while she was vacationing from the United States.

Brillantes married Francisca in 1970 and sired three daughters—Maria Sandra, Ma. Selina and Ma. Suzanne. None would follow in their father’s footsteps as a lawyer.

After closing their law firm, the younger Brillantes worked with business tycoon Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr. as legal affairs officer of Northern Cement Corp. for a decade from 1972 to 1982.

From 1983 to 1986, he became director and corporate secretary of the ECJ Group of Companies, Northern Carriers Corp. and ECJ and Sons. Around the same time, he was also a senior partner at the Robles, Brillantes, Nachura, Ricafrente & Aguirre Law Firm in Makati City.

But like a man of God heeding his vocation, Brillantes bid Cojuangco goodbye after 14 years with him to go back to what he felt he was truly meant to do: Defend politicians in courthouses and make sure they’d win, or at least not get cheated in elections.

“Corporate lawyering was not really my line. I was more into debating and picking up a fight in the court so I told my boss that I would like to establish my own law office with friends as my partners,” he recalls.

In 1987, he became a senior partner at the Brillantes, Nachura, Navarro, Jumamil, Arcilla, Escolin & Martinez Law Offices, and was soon helping clients around the country win their election cases.

He would later collaborate with his former boss, Danding Cojuangco, as lead counsel when the latter ran for president in 1992, which turned out to be a rather tumultuous year for the feisty election lawyer.

Aside from his client losing his presidential run, Brillantes also lost his wife to a car accident.

After the tragedy, he found himself leaving for work at daybreak. This, he says, was to escape the torment and the sadness brought about by memories of his wife.

“I always moved out of the house early after my wife had an accident. It was lonely there so I wake up very early and go to work,” he recounts. He never considered marrying again because he says having three daughters watching him closely was enough.

But like President Aquino, who remains single, the election chief has not been spared the good-natured teasing of a largely romantic public. He has been a good sport about it, as recounted in an Inquirer report on the Comelec hearing on rejected party list candidates.

Among the party-list candidates who had been rejected (was) a 75-year-old widow, who described herself as “a Bible preacher, a mother of eight and grandmother of 26,” (who) said that her platform would focus on uplifting the plight of solo parents, abused wives and neglected widows.

Brillantes asked the red-clad woman: “So actually, your advocacy is to help the byudas (widows)… what about the byudos (widowers) like me?”

In response, the widow said it was a pleasure to know that Brillantes was single like her.

“I’m very much available and negotiable and it will be an honor to have the chairman as my future,” she said.

The woman added that it had been 19 years since she felt her heart flutter, to which Brillantes playfully replied, “For me, it has been 20 years.”

The exchange sent the entire session hall into guffaws, and the Comelec chair into a deep blush although he also joined in the laughter.

Work has proved to be a comforting balm for the widowed Brillantes, who persevered in election lawyering and would later earn a reputation as the opposition counsel. From 2001 to 2006, he was the general counsel of the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) founded by Cojuangco.

He also became the lead counsel of deposed President Joseph Estrada during the 1998 presidential elections. He later represented the late Fernando Poe Jr. in the legal battle against former President Arroyo, who reportedly rigged the 2004 elections to defeat the actor, her closest rival.

No, he can’t recall how he ended up as Poe’s lead counsel, but the opportunity to defend the actor helped him solidify his reputation as the lawyer of the opposition.

“It helped my reputation in the sense that I was identified with the opposition all the time until 2010 when I again became President Aquino’s lead counsel,” he says.

Following the first automated elections two years ago, Brillantes thought of finally retiring from the practice.

“I told myself it was time; anyway it has been too long for me and I could see that election law practice is starting to dwindle because the scheme is different under an automated system,” he says.

But then came an offer from Malacañang that he could not refuse. Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa called him up early January in 2011 to tell him that he was ripe for the job as Comelec chief, a post vacated earlier by then chairman Jose Melo.

Brillantes admits he did not want the post at first. Since he had already resolved to slow down, he was more inclined to accept an ambassadorial post somewhere quiet, away from the noise of politics—somewhere in eastern Europe, he says.

But when he was eventually summoned to Bahay Pangarap to meet with President Aquino, he could no longer say no. “You cannot really say no when you’re called.”

When he showed up at the meeting in Malacañang, he found that his appointment papers only needed his signature. He also remembers Mr. Aquino giving him a pep talk. “He told me, ‘You can do it since you’ve been there for a long time. We don’t have much to choose from. You are our only choice.”’

Election lawyer Romulo Macalintal—Brillantes’ friend but fierce opponent in court and one of those considered for the chairmanship—could not agree more with the President.

“Malacañang made the best, if not one of the best, appointees in his person. He is the most knowledgeable chairman that the Comelec ever had in terms of competence and knowledge of election laws, rules and regulations,” says Macalintal.

Brillantes’ knowledge of the laws and his decades-old practice as election lawyer are his strongest suit in leading the Comelec, adds Macalintal, stressing that election lawyering is such a highly specialized field of law practice that only a handful can claim mastery of the field.

“His being lawyer-CPA… gives him the edge over the others. He knows the law as a lawyer and he knows how to count the votes, being a CPA,” he adds.

But Brillantes’ critics think differently. Upon his confirmation, several poll watchdog groups and other election stakeholders signed a joint statement saying that Brillantes was “too controversial, too involved in lawyering for politicians and too compromised” to head the election body.

The joint statement was signed by the Automated Election Systems (AES) Watch, the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente), the Concerned Citizens Movement (CCM) and the Center for People Empowerment in Government (CenPeg), among others.

The groups raised doubts on Brillantes’ objectivity and genuine will to reform the Comelec, and said that the election lawyer was being backed by a political wing of the ruling party, and that he didn’t distance himself from its support.

“[He] has lawyered for many competing families through the years and this past association necessarily drew him into a complicated web of political and judicial issues. Even if he were to try to always act in the best interest of truth and justice, his decisions will always be seen as (being) colored by his past association,” the groups had stated.

With Brillantes at the helm of the Comelec for two years now, AESWatch co-convenor Bobby Tuazon says their basis for opposing his appointment has only been validated.

While Brillantes has initiated many firsts in the Comelec, “tangible and visible” significant reforms in correcting errors in the automated elections have yet to be seen under his leadership, Tuazon says.

“As an election lawyer, he was aware of the flaws and the cheating mechanism in the elections,” he adds. “But that knowledge which he might have been able to accumulate for the long years he served as election lawyer should have been a learning lesson for him to translate into a policy and mechanism to make sure that the automated system is really capable of minimizing, if not entirely, eliminating fraud.”

He recalls Brillantes vowing to make Comelec transparent and accountable, but he claims the vows have become “broken promises.”

For his part, lawyer Harry Roque Jr., CCM co-convenor, says he still has misgivings on Brillantes’ capacity to lead the election body “primarily because of the manner he has been conducting himself on criticisms against the PCOS machines.”

“He is acting like the defense counsel of Smartmatic, instead of acting as a chairperson,” observes Roque, referring to the Comelec’s technology provider.

Despite doubts and criticisms, Brillantes remains convinced that the PCOS machines would once again deliver an honest and truthful elections this year.

Once the election is over, the Comelec chief says he is looking forward to a quiet year toward his retirement on Feb. 2015, when he could enjoy his Sunday routine of cooking his specialty, pakbet, and watching his favorite afternoon showbiz talk show without being interrupted by calls from the media.

Brillantes says he is ready to close a very long chapter of his life and work on his retirement although his colleagues have been encouraging him to be active again in 2016, another exciting and lucrative year for election lawyers.

“I have no more plans of going back. Maybe I can try consultancy,” he considers.

What he is looking forward to is planning out his retirement. “All my children have their own lives now and I am already getting older, so what am I to do?” he asks.

Brillantes says his years of practising election law have helped him earn enough for a comfortable retirement.

So far, his plans include restoring a crumbling ancestral home near the beach in Santa, Ilocos Sur, where he envisions spending his remaining years in the comfort of many happy childhood memories, among the people his father had loved and served. •

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