COMMENT: Comelec Testing Powers

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 16 December) – While testing its powers, the Commission on Elections is also on trial. In requesting the Congress and the Department of Interior and Local Government help in enforcing a much-abused provision of the election law, Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes is being accused of “overacting”, of exceeding the Comelec’s authority and jurisdiction, and of violating the due process.

Section 14, RA 7166

The provision concerned (Rappler.com, December 12, 2013: Comelec ‘can’t unseat elected pols’), that the Comelec quoted in its letters is a pertinent part Section 14 of Republic Act 7166: “No person elected to any public office shall enter upon the duties of his office until he has filed the statement of contributions and expenditures herein required.”

In another report, the PCIJ (Philippine Center of Investigative Journalism) wrote that under this provision, candidates – whether they win or lose – are required to submit “true, complete, and itemized” election spending reports “within 30 days from the day of the election.”

The PCIJ report further said: A Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that Comelec signed with the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) on March 14, 2012 requires winning local candidates to furnish DILG with a certification from Comelec that they have duly submitted their SOCE. Without the certification, they are not supposed to be allowed to take their oath of office.” (Bold text supplied)

As the MOA was intended to ensure the implementation of the law, it should be noted: (1) most winning candidates take their oath of office before DILG officials; but (2) many also take their oath before judges, so the MOA should have involved the Judiciary; and (3) Section 14 should be amended to require the attachment of the certification to the copy of the oath on file.

Two Letters

The Comelec has written the Congress and the DILG concerning this matter. In the first letters dated November 27, the Comelec requested the assistance of the DILG and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. “to notify these incumbent officials who have assumed erroneously and tell them to vacate their positions in the meantime that they are complying with the requirements“. (philstar.com, December 13, 2013: Election lawyer: Comelec order violated due process) Speaker Belmonte said he only learned about the letter last December 12. (Bold supplied)

 

In the second letter (PCIJ, December 2013: Comelec: 20 solons, 4 governors, 26 mayors must vacate posts) dated December 11, 2013, Comelec Commissioner Christian Robert S. Lim, chair of the Comelec Campaign Finance Unit (CFU), reiterated to Speaker Belmonte and Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel ‘Mar’ A. Roxas II the Comelec’s November 27 request. The letters included separate lists of the 424 officials under their administrative supervision and the CFU’s findings on the deficiencies in their SOCE submissions – in form only, not in content.

These letters were follow-ups of the March 14, 2012 Comelec-DILG MOA. The Comelec cannot order directly the violators; doing so, the Comelec would encroach into the jurisdictions of the Congress and the DILG to which the violators belong.

Violators

By their various violations of Section 14, the PCIJ report categorized the 424 winning candidates: (1) did not submit SOCE, 155 candidates; (2) did not personally sign SOCE, 104; and, (3) did not use prescribed form, 165.

By positions, the PCIJ broke down the 424 to: 20 House representatives and one assemblyman (of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao?); four governors; one vice governor; eleven provincial board members; 26 mayors; 35 vice mayors; 48 city board members; and 278 councilors.

By political parties, 315 or 73 percent of the 424 candidates with deficient SOCEs ran and won under the banner of national political parties, namely LP, NUP, LP, NOC, UNA, Lakas/Lakas-CMD, the Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino, KBL and PDP-Laban. The 27 percent are regional or local parties. The LP accounts for 40 percent of the violators.

Ranked from top to ten: Liberal Party (LP), 169; National Unity Party (NUP), 44; Nacionalista Party (NP), 39; Independent, 33; Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), 31; United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), 29; Lakas/Lakas-CMD, 17; Bukidnon Paglaum Party (BPP), 14; No political party indicated, 11;

Eight to two: Barug Alang sa Kauswagan ug Demokrasya (BAKUD), 8; Bagumbayan-Volunteers For A New Philippines (B. BAYAN-VNP), 7; Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP), 6; Kapanalig at Kambilan Ning Memalen Pampanga (KAMBILAN), 2; Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP), 2;

One each: Aksyon Demokratiko (AKSYON), ; Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL), Kusog Agusanon (KUSOG); Laban, Lapian ng mga Kaibigan ng Kaunlaran-Bayan ng Hagonoy (Lapiang K), Maguindanao Reform Party (MRP), OMPIA Party, Partido Abe Kapampangan (PAK), Partido Demokratiko Pilipino Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), Partidong Pagbabago ng Palawan (PPP), Sulong Zambales Party (SZP), United Negros Alliance (UNEGA).

Explained, Clarified

 

Those who came out in the media explained that they had filed their SOCEs citing the certifications they had received from the Comelec offices in their respective areas. Comelec provincial or city officers vouched of having received and sent to the Comelec central office the SOCEs of some of the violators. While they advanced various theories of what could have gone wrong or of how their SOCEs might have been lost, they promised to comply with the requirements. Except for those who had not submitted their SOCEs, most implied they were not entirely at fault.

Brillantes (The Philippine Star, December 14, 2013: DILG to unseat local execs) said that merely filing the SOCE within the deadline is not enough to be considered as compliance. The certificates issued to some of the officials only pertained to “compliance of submission.”

He clarified: e HH“Submission is different from legitimate filing. Let’s see if they complied in form. Did they sign the documents?” He cited Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, Gov. Vilma Santos-Recto, and Gov. Amado Espino – among those vehemently protesting for having complied. As Santos-Recto and Biazon “did not personally sign” and Espino “did not submit” requirements, their SOCEs were deemed not filed. In another report, he clarified further that the 424 violators were “not disqualified” but just “considered to have not validly assumed office”.

These did stop flaks of criticisms from hitting Brillantes and the Comelec.

Flaks

Lawyer Raul Lambino, chief of staff and legal counsel of former president and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo – one of the prominently mentioned violators – said Arroyo had complied, called Brillantes a “liar” and accused the Comelec of becoming a tool of Malacañang to oust political opponents of the Aquino administration. (INQUIRER.net , December 12th, 2013: Arroyo’s camp calls Brillantes ‘liar’)

Reports show Lambino to be the liar. First, the order is not “to oust”; second, 213 or 50.24 percent of the violators belong to the LP, the administration party, and its closest ally NUP; and third, only 17 are from Lakas-CMD, Arroyo’s party. Arroyo did not sign personally her SOCE.

House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr., while assuring that all the 20 House members would comply by December 16, said the Commission on Elections (Comelec) was overacting. Based on the Comelec’s list, only three of the 20 lawmakers allegedly did not file their SOCEs. That most of them did not personally sign their SOCEs should not be taken in bad faith but just as a matter of “misapprehension”. (philstar.com, December 12, 2013: House Speaker: Comelec ‘overacting’)

Belmonte has admitted an evil practice in government and he is unwittingly advocating its continuance: Token compliance in form, not necessarily in content, is enough to satisfy the law. This is very true of compliance to our electoral laws and many other laws. This tokenism is at the root of the corruption, scandals, and other irregularities plaguing the country.

Election lawyer George Garcia criticized the poll body for going overboard in ordering local officials to vacate their posts for failing to file their SOCEs or for submitting documents with technical deficiencies. He contended “the Comelec does not have the authority to unseat sworn-in officials based on deficiencies in their SOCEs. The Comelec jurisdiction ends once candidates are proclaimed and are serving”.

He propounded limitations to the Comelec authority and jurisdiction:

1. It has authority over elected officials only in relation to “pending cases or petitions prior to election,” including disqualification charges and electoral protests.

2. It cannot apply Section 14 against the politicians filing SOCEs with technical deficiencies. The provision “speaks only of administrative fine for those who did not file SOCE.”

3. Section 14 “speaks only of candidates,” therefore those who did not file reports and have since assumed their posts are no longer candidates and “may be disqualified only come next elections” should they file their candidacy.

4. It “should have notified the DILG of the non-filing” of SOCE before the winning candidates were allowed to assume office. Otherwise, the non-filing cannot be used as grounds to remove them. (Rappler.com, December 12, 2013: Comelec ‘can’t unseat elected pols’)

Garcia has ignored the March 4, 2012 MOA and the Comelec resolution setting the rules in the implementation of Section 14. He is mistaking “suspension” for “unseating” – confusing the issues, instead of helping clarify them.

Election lawyer Romulo Macalintal believed there was no due process when the Comelec ordered 424 winning poll candidates to vacate their positions for the alleged deficiencies in their SOCEs.The Comelec should have notified the affected incumbent officials first before the poll body informed the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and the House Speaker of the matter. (philstar.com, December 13, 2013: Election lawyer: Comelec order violated due process)

The two letters to the Congress and DILG were the first step in the due process. The next steps were incumbent upon the Congress and DILG. For the Comelec to send letters directly to the violators would be to trespass the jurisdictions of the Congress and DILG.

Mending Fences

That DILG Secretary Manuel Roxas III will implement the Comelec order in keeping with “the administration’s vow to pursue electoral reforms” (The Philippine Star, December 14, 2013: DILG to unseat local execs) is encouraging. But this and a similar commitment of Speaker Belmonte to do the same are not enough to mend the electoral fences.

The election laws must be seriously reviewed and amended. In the same Star report above, the Congress has decided “to review the Omnibus Election Code and other regulations on campaign spending to make the law more relevant”. Belmonte said that the limits are so ridiculously low that it is very hard to believe that candidates only spend that much – as reported in their SOCEs. As a remedy, limits to election expenses should be periodically adjusted to inflation.

Brillantes is right in wanting stiffer penalties for failure to correctly file the SOCE. Evidently, the candidates – losing and winning – are taking this lightly. They must have taken this more for granted since past Commissions had not seriously implemented this provision – Sec. 61, 1978 Election Code (PD 1296); Sec. 111, The 1985 Omnibus Election Code (BP Blg. 881); Sec. 14, The 1991 Synchronized Election Law (RA. 7166). The first two did not prescribe any penalty.

In the present law, RA 7166, violators are liable to an administrative fine of P1,000 to P30,000 for the first offense. For the second offense, the fine is raised – P2,000 to P60,000, like the first offense, at the discretion of the Commission. Added is the penalty of “perpetual disqualification to hold office”.

Brillantes also recommended the failure to submit the prescribed SOCE to be a criminal offense. A prison term together with the fine and perpetual disqualification to hold office as determined by the court will compel the candidates to take the SOCE seriously. Consider also as a criminal offense the certification of a defective SOCE and the administration of an oath to the holder of a defective SOCE. A copy of the SOCE must be appended to the copy of the oath on file.

In prevailing upon the Congress to review the election laws, the Brillantes Commission has set the election reform in motion. It will not be easy for Brillantes and his Commission to push the amendments they would think necessary. More than at any other time, this will also be the most opportune for the President to realize the electoral reform “he has vowed to pursue”, according to Roxas. Making known what the President envisions will be crucial.

But the Palace statement is indifferent. Deputy Spokesperson Abigail Valte said Malacañang is leaving it to Congress to decide on the proposal of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to impose stiffer sanctions against candidates who failed to file statements of contributions and expenditures (SOCEs). It will defer to the Comelec on any other amendments that they would wish to propose to Congress when it comes to the Omnibus Election Code. (philstar.com, December 14, 2013: Palace: Stiffer sanctions for failing to submit SOCEs up to Congress).

The President does not want to lend a hand in mending fences. Why?

[Postscript: All other reports mentioned “422” as the number of violators. Only PCIJ reported “424”. However, as PCIJ broke up the violators into different categories, the corresponding numbers in each category totaled “424”. The PCIJ figure is the correct one.—ppd]

(“Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards recently honored Mr. Diaz with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” You can reach him at patpdiazgsc@yahoo.com.)

URL: http://www.mindanews.com/mindaviews/2013/12/16/comment-comelec-testing-powers/


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