Bong Go cash assistance to fire victims may count as vote-buying – Comelec

Top photo from Bong Go campaign team

AT A GLANCE

MANILA, Philippines – Duterte aide and senatorial candidate Bong Go may be committing an election offense by promising and giving out assistance to people affected by fire incidents during the campaign period, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) said.

This is because promising and distributing assistance, whether in cash or in kind, during the campaign by a candidate fits the legal definition of vote-buying in the Omnibus Election Code.

Bawal po ‘yan. Maaaring may magreklamo sa kanila ng vote-buying,” Comelec spokesman James Jimenez told Rappler on Monday, March 11. (That’s prohibited. Someone may file a vote-buying complaint against them.) 

Any allegation of vote-buying must go through a hearing before the act can be declared as such by the Comelec. One way to initiate a hearing is if there is a complaint about vote-buying. The punishment for vote-buying is imprisonment of not less than one year but not more than 6 years and perpetual disqualification from voting and holding public office. (READ: Comelec urges public to report vote-buying)

Rappler found that Go made cash donations to fire victims during or immediately after his visit to communities stricken by fire. He made these donations during the campaign period. 

On March 5, Go dropped by Barangay South Cembo in Makati City at around 11:30 am. After shaking hands with residents and giving a speech, his staff distributed P2,000 to 22 out of 23 affected families. The 23rd family did not get cash assistance because they were not present at the Bong Go event. 

Bago rin siya umalis doon sa incident, sa evacuation center, nagbigay din naman siya ng financial support, minimal lang naman, P2,000 per family. We have 23 families na affected ng fire incident so he gave pero 'yung mga 'andodoon lang na present,” said South Cembo Barangay Chairperson Eva Dian Manalo Omar in an interview with Rappler on Wednesday, March 13. 

(Before he left the evacuation center, he gave financial support, just minimal – P2,000 per family. We have 23 families affected, so he gave but only to those present at the visit.) 

Omar later on clarified that it was not Go himself who handed out the cash but someone from his group.

Below is part of Rappler's interview with Omar.

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Go's staff distributed the cash donation the morning after the fire razed the homes of 80 persons on March 4. Those affected were left with nothing, with 6 persons even asking Go to provide underwear since they had lost theirs. Within days, Go’s staff sent 6 packs (with 6 pieces each) of underwear.

Go also gave cash assistance to the fire victims of Sta Ana, Manila, when he visited their community on February 18.

Go is listed among the sources of “external” assistance in the tally of assistance displayed at Punta’s Barangay 898 Hall when Rappler dropped by on February 21. 

'CASH' FROM BONG GO. Bong Go listed as the source of a cash donation in this tally of assistance in Barangay 898 for fire victims. Photo by Pia Ranada / Rappler

'CASH' FROM BONG GO. Bong Go listed as the source of a cash donation in this tally of assistance in Barangay 898 for fire victims.

Photo by Pia Ranada / Rappler

It says he donated “cash.” Manila Social Welfare staff in the barangay hall were not able to give the total amount of Go’s donation.

Kagawad Edgar Budino was there when Go dropped by. He recalled the senatorial candidate promised cash assistance for those affected by the fire. 

Yung alam ko, magbibigay siya sa mga nasunugan ng pera,” he told Rappler. (What I know is, he will give money to those affected by the fire.)

Remedios Viray, among those affected by the fire, said she heard Go promise that the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) would provide cash.

Ang prinamis niya is 'yung P3,000 to P5,000 na makukuha ng nasunugan, so nagpunta kami sa ano, nakuha naman namin, P1,500,” she said. 

(He promised P3,000 to P5,000 for the people affected by the fire, so we went and we got P1,500.)

Like in South Cembo, Go paid a visit only a few days after the fire incident. The Sta Ana fire began on Saturday night, February 16, damaging 8 houses and affecting 107 people. By Monday night, Go had paid his visit.

Rappler asked Go's camp, specifically his aide Gelo Villar, repeatedly for comment. No response has been given as of posting. We will update this story if they issue a statement.

What the law says about vote-buying

Vote-buying is defined this way by the Omnibus Election Code, the law that outlines what is allowed and not allowed during Philippine elections:

But Barangay Captain Omar defended Go, saying the senatorial bet clearly said during his visit that he was not campaigning at that time. 

“In the first place, when he arrived, he said he is not there to campaign. He said he is there because he found out there was a fire incident and so he took a break from campaigning. He came there to help, he said,” Omar told Rappler in Filipino. 

Viray said Go said the same thing when he visited Sta Ana. 

But according to Jimenez, any offer or distribution of assistance doesn’t need to be explicitly identified as part of a candidate’s campaign for it to be considered vote-buying. (READ: The many ways of buying votes)

“Just like with campaign propaganda, no need for the explicit solicitation of votes,” said Jimenez.

Election lawyer Emil Marañon III said Go’s donations and assistance can fall under vote-buying regardless of his actual motive for providing such help. 

“Vote-buying, which is punished under the Omnibus Election Code, a special law, is a malum prohibitum. An act which is declared malum prohibitum, malice or criminal intent is completely immaterial,” he said.

This means that even just the act of giving something of value to voters by a candidate is vote-buying, whether or not there was malice in the act.

Was Go’s P2,000 cash donation of value to the fire victims? Seeing as the victims had just lost their homes and most of their belongings, such amount would be of value.

Go’s donation did not strike Omar as vote-buying.

“The people were in need. It’s about being humane. P2,000 is small. If he really wanted to buy votes, he would have gone all out,” she said.

No one doubts Go’s donations will help fire victims. But the problem with politicians giving such assistance during the campaign season is, it perpetuates patronage politics, a long-festering ill in the Philippines.

Patronage politics is when there is a “patron-client” relationship between politicians and voters, said Carmel Abao, Ateneo de Manila University political science professor. 

“There is a private exchange between a patron (e.g., Bong Go) and clients (the voters) which should otherwise be public or impersonal. So ‘services,’ in exchange for ‘support,’” she said. 

The rule on vote-buying is not designed to stop any individual from making much-needed donations to people affected by calamity. Go could have made an anonymous donation, if he really wanted to help without involving his senatorial bid.

Government officials helping with Bong Go fire visits

Rappler also found that government officials play a role in these Bong Go fire incident visits.

Social Welfare Undersecretary Aimee Neri functioned as Go’s “advance party” for his Barangay South Cembo visit, said Omar.

This was how Neri was described to Omar when Go’s visit was being coordinated with her.

“She really waited for him, Bong Go. They really went together. She didn’t leave the venue until Bong Go arrived,” said Omar to explain why she thought Go and Neri were working together for the visit.

Neri is a Duterte appointee. She has been hopping from one government appointment to another, with President Rodrigo Duterte tapping her as justice assistant secretary, then as Bureau of Immigration deputy commissioner, then as social welfare undersecretary.

Omar also said an official of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) was present and even helped in arrangements for Go’s visit. She, however, did not get his name. He was wearing a jacket with a DILG logo and introduced himself as working for the DILG, she said.

“He was saying, a speaker (microphone) is required, the seats should be arranged like this. He wanted the arrangement to be in a circle,” said the barangay captain. 

The Civil Service Commission (CSC) and Comelec rules allow political appointees like Neri to engage in partisan political activities. But when their functions as public officials with control over government resources overlap with a candidate’s activities, it could get confusing. 

The DSWD is among the national agencies expected to help out in calamities like fire incidents. With a DSWD official present at a Bong Go activity during which much-needed assistance is given, lines are blurred between what should be “impersonal” government services (DSWD relief goods and assistance) and a campaign activity.

“Government services must be delivered to all citizens, regardless of political allegiances. In patron-client relations, service delivery is ‘privatized’ so that citizens feel indebted to the politicians delivering the public services, as if public resources are personal resources of these politicians,” weighed in Abao. 

DSWD Secretary Rolando Bautista has yet to respond to Rappler's request for comment on Neri's involvement in Go's visits. Rappler asked DSWD spokesperson Glenda Relova for comment but was told to direct questions to the director of the social media office due to a new internal "memo" on media queries. The policy was not posted on the DSWD website or its social media accounts and Social Media Director Joel Espejo has not responded as of posting.

There are other ways the Bong Go fire visits blur the line between government services and the actions of a political candidate.  

Go is quoted in his own official campaign press releases as promising fire victims that he will reach out to “former colleagues” in the government to make sure more assistance is on the way.

“Go also assured the residents of Punta, Sta Ana that former colleagues from various government agencies like DSWD, Pagcor, PCSO, and NHA will be requested to deliver additional assistance to the fire victims,” reads the press release dated February 19 for the Sta Ana visit.

And his promises come true. Omar, for example, got a text from a PCSO (Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office) official saying they had gotten a call from Malacañang ordering them to send assistance to her barangay’s fire victims.

The official, a woman named “Verna,” had texted then called Omar.

“She said they found out about the incident because someone called them from the office of Malacañang. The word ‘Malacañang’ was really used. They were asking if PCSO can help. I said, ‘Is this through Bong Go because Bong Go is the only one who visited us who is related to Malacañang and has strong connections there. She said, ‘Maybe it’s like that,’ she wasn’t sure,” said Omar.

Because Go openly promises more government assistance would come due to his efforts, what happens when the promised assistance does come? Will the beneficiaries only see the assistance as a government service, or a favor from senatorial candidate Bong Go? 

What’s clear is that government resources are buoying his candidacy. He uses his ties to government officials, who have access to government resources, to burnish his image as a good Samaritan.

Go had urged voters not to vote for him if there is proof that government resources were used for his senatorial bid. President Duterte himself had prohibited the use of government resources for any candidate’s campaign. 

"Nobody but nobody can use government resources, not even Bong. I will not allow it," Duterte had said on October 15, 2018.

WATCH: Bong Go on whether/not his campaign makes use of gov't resources, who his campaign donors are, which Senate committees he wants to be part of. @rapplerdotcom @phvote pic.twitter.com/yZBWblII1H — Pia Ranada (@piaranada) February 12, 2019

Frequent fire visits

But the Barangay South Cembo and Sta Ana fire visits are just two visits among many. Go has been making such visits as early as July 2018 or months before the official campaign season. 

Based on Rappler’s count, Go has made at least 36 fire visits so far. Of these, 7, or about 19%, were done during the campaign period or from February 12 onwards. 

Below are graphics showing the frequency and geographic scope of his visits from July 5, 2018 to March 5, 2019. The data was based on press releases, posts on Go's campaign social media accounts, and news reports. 

 

If Go gave P2,000 for every family affected by a single fire incident, how much in total did he spend on cash donations for all his fire visits? Will he report that as a campaign expense in his Statement of Contributions and Expenditures (SOCE)? 

The fire visits appear to be an important part of his campaign. Since January, he has conducted fire visits multiple times a week. In some periods, like in February, he was making almost daily fire visits. Go squeezes them in even between attending major campaign rallies of PDP-Laban and Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP).

But the fire visits are not all that different from a campaign sortie, even if Go insists he is not doing them to earn votes. 

For one thing, he gives a speech. 

Natuwa rin kami, yung presence niya. Kasi sabi niya itutuloy niya yung kay Duterte. Galit siya sa mga corrupt,” said Viray. (We were happy with his presence. He said he would continue what Duterte has done. He said he is angry at the corrupt.)

This line Viray heard is mentioned by Go all the time during campaign sorties.

In several fire visits, Go has brought along actor Phillip Salvador. Salvador is also by Go’s side at HNP and PDP-Laban rallies. They even do skits together. The actor sometimes proxies for Go at campaign activities the former Duterte aide cannot attend. 

Prayoridad ko ang tumulong sa nangangailangan, higit pa sa pangangampanya,” said Go in Sta Ana. (My priority is to help the needy, even more than to campaign.)

But as far as the legal definition of vote-buying is considered, one act is not always separable from the other.

And here's the catch: for any candidate to be held liable for vote-buying, Jimenez said a private complainant must file a complaint which would serve as the Comelec's basis for its own complaint. – with a report from Sofia Tomacruz/Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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