Election watchdog urges Comelec: Probe Duterte's 2016 campaign expenses

MANILA, Philippines – At a recent Senate hearing on franchise issues hounding the Philippines' biggest broadcast network, ABS-CBN, details on President Rodrigo Duterte's advertisement expenditures revealed discrepancies between those declared to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and those recorded with the media agency.

This much was pointed out by election watchdog Kontra Daya on Monday, March 2, as it urged the Comelec to investigate Duterte's expenses during the 2016 presidential campaign.

"As the renewal of franchise of ABS-CBN hangs in the balance, the issue now goes beyond press freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of speech. Election fraud rears its ugly head once more and the Comelec must fulfil its mandate to investigate," Kontra Daya said in a statement.

The group said Duterte was "likely to have overspent," going beyond what he disclosed to the poll body.

ABS-CBN chief executive officer Karlo Katigbak had disclosed that Duterte's campaign team purchased P117 million worth of national ads – all of which were aired – along with P65-million worth of local ads, of which P7-million worth went unaired.

This means that all in all, some P175 million was spent for aired ads. But the P175 million does not match – and is higher than – what Duterte's team declared in its schedule of expenses to the Comelec last June 2016.

According to a detailed breakdown of expenditures, Duterte's team listed 10 payments made to ABS-CBN from March to May 2016 worth some P151.47 million. This is P24 million less than what was actually paid to ABS-CBN.

"President Rodrigo Duterte’s beef against ABS-CBN turns out to be him being (the) bigger fish to fry," Kontra Daya said.

In his report on his 2016 campaign expenses, Duterte says he spent a total of P343.69 million on all "newspaper, radio, TV, and other advertisements" to promote his candidacy, including "website/internet ad placements." This includes the P175 million for the aired ads.

This amount also comprised the bulk of Duterte's campaign expenses, which totaled about P371.46 million. These expenses also covered travel, communications, salaries of campaign staff, and rent, among others. 

His total campaign spend made Duterte the 3rd top spender following then-presidential bets Grace Poe and Jejomar Binay.

Malacañang denies Duterte's 'overspending'

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo dismissed Kontra Daya's findings as mere "speculation."

He refuted claims that Duterte overspent in his campaign, as he repeated the President's refrain that funds for advertisements were sourced from supporters and various contributions. He then passed the buck onto the Comelec, which, he said, "woud have stepped in" by now if Duterte indeed overspent.

"He (Duterte) has not violated any law. And he will not. He enforces the law," Panelo told reporters in an interview.

But this is not always the case. Election lawyer Emil Marañon pointed out in an earlier Rappler Talk interview that the Comelec alone may have difficulty reviewing candidates’ expenses, considering that 80,000 to 100,000 were filed after elections.

Aside from this, Marañon, who was chief of staff of former Comelec chair Sixto Brillantes Jr added that the Comelec also lacked workers who could properly go through all the documents. This often meant that candidates’ Statements of Contributions and Expenditures were not cross-checked.

Violations of the Fair Elections Act are considered election offenses under the Omnibus Election Code. Those found guilty of committing such offenses may face imprisonment of not less than one year but not more than 6 years, disqualification from holding public office, and deprivation of the right to vote.

Duterte has repeatedly threatened ABS-CBN with losing its franchise after he accused the network of "swindling" him for supposedly not airing his paid political advertisements during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The Duterte government took this one step further after Solicitor General Jose Calida filed a quo warranto petition at the Supreme Court seeking to void ABS-CBN's franchise. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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