ELECTION OFFICER DETAINED
Former Toledo City Election Officer Michael Angelo Sarno found himself in the middle of a political storm in Toledo City after he was supposedly “caught” bringing out documents from his erstwhile office around midnight on Tuesday and was surrounded by hostile supporters of local political figures while held at the city’s police station for nearly four hours.
Sarno, who was “invited” for questioning by the police, also had his car thoroughly searched by the police in the presence of the supporters of contending mayoral candidates Mayor John Henry “Sonny” Osmeña and Aurelio Espinosa before he was freed at around 4 a.m. yesterday, only after Toledo City Election Officer Gallardo Escobar came to his rescue.
The incident angered Commission on Elections (Comelec) director for Central Visayas Jose Nick Mendros who found the police action unacceptable.
Mendros stressed Sarno had every right to enter the Comelec office in Toledo City because it was still his office even if he has been temporarily reassigned to Cebu City.
Moreover, Sarno is an election officer entering an office of the Comelec and his presence there should not have been questioned, said Mendros.
Prior to going to the Comelec office in Toledo, Mendros said Sarno personally asked his permission on Tuesday afternoon to go there and get some of his personal documents. He said he told Sarno to go ahead and just inform Escobar, who has taken Sarno’s place as the city’s election officer two weeks ago.
He added that Sarno arrived in Toledo City late in the evening, as he was intending to travel to his hometown in Calatrava, Negros Occidental via the port of Toledo City to San Carlos City, also in Negros Occidental.
“What’s the fuss all about?” Mendros asked. “It’s still the office of the Comelec even if it is a property of the Toledo City government. Ang reshuffling is a temporary assignment and it is still his (Sarno’s) office. Ano bang kinakatakot nila?” (The reshuffling is a temporary assignment and it is still his office. What are they scared of?)
Mendros also challenged those who questioned the impartiality of Sarno to file a complaint and prove their allegations against him. The Comelec, he said, would willingly conduct an investigation about it.
Mendros said he also directed Cebu Provincial Election Supervisor Eliseo Labaria to talk with the chief of police in Toledo City, Supt. Samuel Mina, and to get an answer why they held Sarno for several hours.
“Bakit kailangan ng police? Dating police chief, kapag pumunta sa office, ganoon din ang gagawin nila?” he asked. (Why do they need police? If a former police chief comes to his office, will they do the same thing?)
Mina, reached for comment, explained they decided to “invite” Sarno to the police station, which was located just a few meters from the Comelec office, to diffuse the tension, as supporters from opposing camps had began to gather at the area. Policemen had to be deployed in the area to ensure nothing untoward would happened between the two camps, he added.
“All movements now might be political but this is an isolated incident. It just so happened that there was malice because of his presence inside the office at past midnight, and it was way beyond office hours,” Mina explained.
Sarno was held by the police after he was seen by an Osmeña supporter, a Rosseller Rafols Layan, 38, entering the Comelec office and leaving with some documents that were placed inside his silver sports utility vehicle.
Riza Rafols, a candidate for councilor in Osmeña’s slate, said they blocked Sarno’s SUV and did not allow it to leave as they suspected he was carrying out documents related to the coming elections.
Escobar, after personally checking the vehicle of Sarno, only found private documents in the car. But Osmeña’s supporters still refused to let Sarno go until Escobar attested that nothing went missing from his office.
Sarno likewise clarified by phone that he dropped by his former office to get some of his personal documents involving a “family case” before leaving for the Toledo City port bound for San Carlos City in Negros Oriental early morning yesterday, en route to his hometown Calatrava in Negros Occidental.
Mendros, sought for clarification last night, said that election officers could be given by the Comelec an authority to practice law and represent private clients provided these were not election-related cases.
“There was no truth that those documents are Comelec related. Those are mere allegations,” Sarno told Cebu Daily News, as he strongly denied allegations from the camp of Osmeña that he was supporting Espinosa.
But Osmeña, in a separate phone interview, said they had reason to question the impartiality of Sarno as the election officer was previously seen allegedly in the house of Espinosa.
“We are watching him (Sarno),” Osmeña said. “This is not the first time that he did it. He went to Comelec office, brought documents, loaded to his car and drove away,” he added.
Lawyer Inocencio Dela Cerna, legal counsel of Osmeña, said they were studying if Sarno’s action could constitute an “election offense and possible illegal use of government property and violation of graft and corrupt practices act.”
Sarno said he might have been misunderstood because he was transferred to Toledo City during the time when Espinosa was mayor of the city.
Sarno stressed he also had reason to continue visiting his office since his assignment in the south district of Cebu City is just temporary. “I still have my other things left there (Toledo City) as it is my original station,” he said.
Escobar, in a phone interview yesterday, also explained that he was not able to immediately come to Sarno’s rescue at the city police station because he fell asleep without realizing that his phone’s battery had gone out. He said he was not able to receive the calls from Sarno.
Escobar clarified that Sarno could still visit the Comelec office in Toledo City because it was his original station that he would go back to after the elections on May 9.
Escobar said the documents found inside Sarno’s car were just training materials and Comelec resolution. “Those documents are common documents that can be found inside the car of a Comelec officer,” he stressed./with correspondent Rene Alima and USJ-R intern Sheila Gumapon
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