BAUNGON, BUKIDNON–Ryan Chua and I were just out of high school when we first heard “Hello Garci.”
It was a looming question to the legitimacy of then Pres. Gloria Arroyo’s 2004 win, and we saw journalists take pains to get it out and officials take pains to discredit it.
We now remember just the soundbites: the greeting turned into a myriad ringtones and the line “Will I still lead by one million?”
The controversy signaled a loss of trust in the administration. Back in college, it meant incessant rallies and suspicions of government moves to quash opposition and stay in power.
Arroyo nonetheless finished her six years, not without making a televised apology for “talking to a Comelec official”.
Meanwhile, we barely heard from Commissioner Virgilio “Garci” Garcillano since.
Ryan and I had already graduated to the media and covered our first elections. Ryan broke news from the Comelec during Halalan 2010, while I was sent to top election hot spot Maguindanao.
This weekend, Garci invited our team and a score of other media people here, an hour’s drive south of Cagayan De Oro.
What he had to say, we did not know.
That week in Manila, Justice Secretary Leila De Lima presented to the press policemen who claimed they helped switched election returns in 2004 favoring Arroyo.
As it happened, the former President, now congresswoman, was undergoing a delicate neck surgery.
But despite the best we could speculate how Garci would add himself to the succession of revelations, CDO-based reporters told us he might just stick with his earlier denials and prove a dead end.
The peach-and-red subdivision-type two-story house was just one of Garci’s many residences in the area.
This house was nestled among corn fields a kilometer from the main road of Baungon’s central barangay Imbatug, a turn past the municipal hall and local arena.
Tended greenery and fruit trees welcomed those who entered the gated residence. A Toyota HiLux, a Mitsubishi Pajero, and a Ford Everest, all gray, were parked at the garage.
A perky Golden Retriever paced around his cage nearby, greeting visitors.
At the back, roosters bred for cock fights inhabited coops sun-blocked by tarpaulins from Garci’s failed 2007 run for Congress.
The commissioner had lived quietly below the national radar. Looking every much as we last saw him on TV, he looked healthy.
But Garci insisted he did not hide.
“If you don’t see me, should I be obligated if I don’t want to be interviewed?” he told us who greeted him when he arrived.
Garci had refused to grant interviews, even constantly turned down the crew of GMA 7’s Ruth Cabal who had come and gone all week.
He was surprised at his name cropping up again in the news. But he told his lawyer, Ed Tamondong, “I will say my piece at the proper time.”
Baungon’s famous resident remains a main name in his town.
A teenager who turned out to be a godson of Garci’s led us here. The kid’s family had him ride with us when we asked them for directions.
Garci had no children, but he is called “Tatay” here.
A local reporter said Garci was known for his generosity especially during his stint in the Comelec. Garci regularized deserving employees under him and his home was open to any kababayan in need.
So when the “Hello Garci” scandal broke out, many residents would not believe it, the reporter recalled.
No wonder Garci confidently said in the press con set in his living room, “Go to the field. You can ask those who personally know me if I made any order to cheat.”
Reading his statement from a legal pad, Garci denied sending feelers to Malacañang to come clean about the alleged cheating in 2004. Instead, he said, emissaries had badgered him.
“If they want me to tell what they would like me to tell, now that’s a different story,” he said.
“But as far as the truth is concerned, ako nakapagsabi na ng totoo. Wala akong ginawang cheating.”
He only answered questions he wanted to answer. He dismissed others, saying:
“Your question’s wrong.”
“I already answered that before.”
“Go to the records. They hold more information.”
“Please do not ask questions that would just lead me on.”
He detailed a conversation he had with President Arroyo, but later on declined to say if he did talk to her. He said the “Hello Garci” tape was spliced, but when pressed if it was his voice in it, he would not bite.
Garci quickly denied that any offer was made after he mentioned how the emissary from the Palace commented that he wouldn’t accept money even if it was being offered.
He became exasperated when the Manila-based reporters took turns to clarify his words on the Garci tape and on the alleged cheating.
“You’re acting like a lawyer,” he told persistent Ruth Cabal.
“Cheating is always a possibility in this country,” he answered Ryan. “But who in fact cheats, we can never say. One person cannot cheat alone.”
“I appeal to those in government to let this country move on.”
“Have you moved on?” Ryan later asked.
“I am doing my thing here in my farm,” Garci said. He groused. “Ask something which is for the good of everybody.”
“Tell the truth,” he constantly appealed to the reporters. He said he was willing to help in reforming elections and educating voters.
“Help me bring across the message that I am not against this government,” he said.
He added that it has been difficult dealing with public perception.
“I was hurt a lot. That actually destroyed my career.”
Media men who arrived late soon mobbed Garci with belated questions. After reluctantly repeating what he kept saying for 45 minutes, he rose up and walked to the dining area, where his family waited.
Garci’s first “Hello” in 3 years, carried live on the news channels, was far from a mere “Hello, kumusta kayong lahat?”
But whoever hoped this last puzzle piece would finally spill the beans or at least shed light on the unresolved was left disappointed.