Comelec 'can't unseat elected pols'

MANILA, Philippines – Election players think the poll body has gone overboard in ordering local officials to vacate their posts for failing to file campaign spending reports or for submitting documents with technical deficiencies.

At most, said George Garcia, a seasoned election lawyer, the Commission on Election (Comelec) does not have the authority to unseat sworn-in officials based on deficiencies in their Statement of Election Contributions and Expenditures (SOCE).

At the very least, officials said, the Comelec should have checked its record-keeping system and sent prior notices before issuing the orders.

The law on synchronized elections requires candidates – whether they win or lose – to submit “true, complete, and itemized” election spending reports “within 30 days from the day of the election.”

On Thursday, December 12, the Comelec issued an order for 424 local officials to vacate their offices for any of the following grounds: failure to submit their SOCE, not using the prescribed forms for their reports, not signing the SOCE themselves.

The 4 governors, one vice governor, 12 provincial board members, 20 district representatives, 26 city and municipal mayors, 35 vice mayors, and 324 councilors covered by the orders belong to different political parties. Some were independents when they ran for office.

The Comelec sent letters to Secretary Manuel Roxas of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr to implement the removal of these officials from their posts.

In these letters, the Comelec reiterated 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.”

The officials, Comelec said, should not be reinstated “until they have complied with the campaign finance disclosure requirements provided by our election laws.”

Comelec jurisdiction ends

However, Garcia told Rappler, “Law and jurisprudence are clearly against the Comelec on this action. Comelec jurisdiction ends once [candidates] are proclaimed and serving.”

The Comelec has authority over elected officials only in relation to “pending cases or petitions prior to election,” he said. These include disqualification charges and electoral protests.

Garcia said the provision being cited by Comelec “speaks only of administrative fine for those who did not file SOCE.” If the politician filed his campaign spending report but the poll body found technical deficiencies, “Section 14…is not applicable.”

As for cases where the politicians did not file their SOCE, Garcia said Section 14 “speaks only of candidates,” therefore those who did not file reports and have since assumed their posts “may be disqualified only come next elections.”

He said Comelec “should have notified the DILG of the non-filing” of SOCE before the winning candidates were allowed to assume office. Otherwise, this cannot be used as grounds to remove them. 

Too harsh a penalty

House Speaker Belmonte, for his part, said removal from office, albeit temporarily, is too harsh a penalty for SOCE deficiencies.

“Well, I think OA naman ’yung Comelec” (Comelec is overacting),” Belmonte said. Of the representatives on the list, only 4 were supposed to have not filed any spending reports; the rest reportedly did not sign the SOCE themselves.

Nevertheless, the Speaker said he gave the affected congressmen and congresswomen until Monday, December 16, to “fully comply” with the Comelec’s requirements.

The Speaker said he spoke to two of those who supposedly did not file their SOCE and they claimed to have filed their reports.

If this is true, he said, “then that means we have a problem with Comelec’s record keeping.”

Governors provide timelines, proofs

Governor Amado Espino of Pangasinan, one of the 4 provincial chief executives covered by the Comelec order, is also looking at poor record keeping as possible reason for the alleged mistake.

He told Rappler over the phone that his camp is “trying to correct” this. 

Espino, whom Comelec said did not file his SOCE, said his aide Daniel dela Cruz filed his campaign spending report on June 10 – almost a month after election day, and 20 days before he started his new term in office.

He said he submitted documents to the provincial election office with other provincial and congressional candidates. When the central Comelec office put out its list, “Lumabas, ako lang ang wala (It turned out, I’m the one only one who supposedly didn’t file).”

Pangasinan’s election supervisor, lawyer Marino Salas, told Rappler that he sent the complete SOCE of Pangasinan candidates, including Governor Espino’s, to the central office on June 21 through the courier service JRS. He has documents to show Comelec Manila received them on June 22.

He said two copies of the documents were sent to the Comelec in Manila: one for the law department and another for the records section.

The office of Senator Ralph Recto issued a clarification on behalf of the lawmaker’s wife, Governor Vilma Santos Recto of Batangas, whom the Comelec said failed to file her SOCE.

Senator Recto said the governor filed her campaign spending report with the Batangas Comelec on June 6, that even the provincial poll chief was “shocked and surprised” by the order from the central office.

The senator said they “followed all laws, rules, and regulations” and “do not see any mistakes” in the documents they submitted. 

Recto said the Comelec should have notified them of any errors or deficiencies so they could correct them or comply with additional requirements.

Espino also said he did not get notification from the Comelec that he was being listed as non-compliant, so he could have made the clarification earlier. – with a report from Angela Casauay/Rappler.com