A 'politically clueless' priest with a fondness for food is at the heart of the latest scandal to rock the administration of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. When Father Eddie Panlilio, 53, was invited to Malacanang Palace last week, he discarded his work-day sandals, blue jeans and white-collared shirt for leather shoes and the native barong. It was a special occasion. He was meeting Mrs Arroyo for the first time as the newly elected governor of her home province of Pampanga, north of Manila. Father Panlilio had defeated Mrs Arroyo's Kampi Party candidate by a mere 1,147 votes. Still, he was open to working with her on projects 'if they are for the good of the country, especially Pampanga,' he said. He had hoped she would fund some projects to help the poor. In the throng of well-dressed governors, mayors and congressmen who trooped to Malacanang on October 11, Father Panlilio stood out. At 1.80 metres, he was taller than most, and his sunburned face was marred with irregular patches of pale pink skin. The malicious gossip during the campaign was that he had Aids. Father Panlilio said he had 'the Michael Jackson disease', or vitiligo. Sufferers of this non-infectious skin condition are often ostracised. When the first spots marred his forehead in 2003, he said he felt insecure but a female parishioner with the same disorder told him to shrug off the stares. Today Father Panlilio calls his skin condition 'a grace' and 'something beautiful. It makes me more focused and more appreciative of my inner qualities'. This week Father Panlilio found himself shunned by many politicians for a different reason. He was candid enough to say he had received a generous gift on his way out of Malacanang and dared to hint malice behind it. He concedes that those who call him 'politically clueless' for accepting 500,000 pesos (HK$88,350) in cash and then questioning it publicly had a point. 'But people have to know what really transpired because a lot of people based their conclusions on what is not really factual. Like the question why I received it in cash, not as a cheque. Why did I receive it without proper documentation? 'I only saw the money when we were already in transit because Governor Jonjon [Joselito Mendoza of Bulacan] gave the money to Archie [Reyes], my chief of staff, when we were about to exit. 'My chief of staff did not realise it was money. He thought it was just chocolate or a present. I only opened the brown bag when we were already in transit.' His lengthy explanations have not washed with more seasoned political players. One, who works in the provincial capital, said: 'In the first place, why did he accept? He should just have returned it without telling the media.' He said that Father Panlilio's dealings with the provincial legislative council show 'he's not a politician. He cannot understand the political reality and dynamics inside and outside the provincial capital. There are issues he cannot easily grasp.' Father Panlilio concedes shortcomings. 'I have to know more about government bureaucracy. I have to understand people better, politicians in general, and especially management of resources.' But he draws the line on what he calls 'politicking' and sorely misses being a simple priest of the Society of the Divine Word. 'To me politics is different from politicking. Politics is people empowerment; it's people recognising their rights, their privileges and they are willing to work together to make the situation better. Politicking is positioning, it's power-grabbing, it's maligning, it's for self-service.' Before he ran this May, few political leaders knew the existence of the motorcycle-riding priest who walks barefoot during religious processions and holds up Jesus Christ, Saint Francis and Nelson Mandela as role models. He was voted into office by Pampanga's poor, to whom he had dedicated 23 years. It was Father Panlilio who started a local chapter of the Grameen Bank for the poor, and their gratitude for the charismatic priest with a news anchor voice has become adulation. During the campaign, Willie Villarama, Mrs Arroyo's former chief of staff, recalled how his hair stood on end when he saw a crowd cheering, clapping and even weeping at the sight of the priest. Father Panlilio told voters he had to run due to 'the lack of choice for a leader who can be trusted to exercise good governance and bring about change'. But he is no saint, he said. He loves to eat 'almost any kind of food' and acquire 'unnecessary gadgets', like an iPod. His frankness - as well as his simple lifestyle - has endeared him to critics of the long unpopular Mrs Arroyo and made them cast longing looks at Father Panlilio as a potential president. 'I don't give that much importance to it,' he said. 'I just focus on my work.'