By Malou Mangahas

SOME OF the 424 public officials who had earned dishonorable mention in the list of those who failed to file or filed bad election spending reports have complained about a few things.

“OA” or overacting, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. has described the call of Commission on Elections (Comelec) for these officials to vacate their posts, pending their correction or submission of their Statement of Election Contributions and Expenditures (SOCE).

Batangas Gov. Rosa Vilma Santos-Recto had wished for due notice, insisting that she had filed her SOCE and even received a certificate of submission from the local Comelec.

Comelec had said her SOCE submission was “deemed not filed” because another person, not the governor herself, had signed it.

Yet there are those who saw in the Comelec’s initiative to strictly enforce campaign finance rules good, firm signals at reform.

Prof. Leonor Magtolis-Briones, lead convenor of Social Watch Philippines and former national treasurer, notes in the officials’ adverse reactions a general distate for or unwillingness to be held accountable, or even to follow the law.

Transparent, open, and accountable elections should be every Filipino’s favorite thing, whether powerful or powerless.

Going by a string of Comelec resolutions and issuances on campaign finance, it seems like negligence or ignorance of the law — on the part of these public officials — may in fact be the real problem.

Failure to sign their SOCEs themselves is the Comelec’s case against a big number of the winning candidates, including Governor Recto.

And why should this be a problem? As far as the Comelec and elections go, candidates — and not ever their lawyer or other representatives — are the parties of interest, the responsible persons.

The candidates should have known better than to delegate this duty to their deputies. They didn’t know better, or the candidates want to shirk responsibility for whatever information they enroll in their SOCEs about who gave them money, and how they spent it, to get to power.

Could the Comelec file suit against the candidates’ deputies who signed their SOCEs? Not at all.

In truth, from the moment they filed their Certificate of Candidacy (COC), all the candidates signed and swore to, among others, “file, within 30 days after election day his true, full, and itemized SOCE.”

This much in clear in Comelec Resolution No. 9518 on the filing of COCs for the May 2013 elections that the en banc promulgated on Sept. 11, 2012 yet.

Another Comelec issuance, Resolution No. 9476, spelled out the “Rules and Regulations Governing Campaign Finance and Disclosure” for the May 2013 elections and subsequent elections.

Promulgated on June 22, 2012, its Section 4 on “Persons authorized to incur election expenditures” says:

“No person, except the candidate, the treasurer of the party, or any person authorized by such candidate or treasurer, shall make any expenditure in support of or in opposition to any candidate or the party. Such expenditures, if duly authorized, shall be considered as expenditure of such candidate or party.”

When parties not authorized to incur expenses sign on to SOCEs, how can the candidates and the treasurers of political parties be made to own up to the truth or falsity of their SOCE claims?

Yet another provision of Resolution No. 9476 is more than explicit due notice — as explicit could get — to the candidates on the “Effects of Failure to File Statement.”

It states: “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 same prohibition shall apply if the party which nominated the winning candidates fails to file the statement required herein within thirty (30) days from the conduct of election.”

It continues: “Winning candidates shall be issued a certificate of submission immediately upon filing of their statements of contributions and expenditures, a copy of which they must submit upon assumption of office.”

And then the clarification that could be helpful advisory — given 19 months ago yet — to Governor Recto: “Said certificate shall only attest to the receipt of the statement but not as to the veracity of its contents.”

The Comelec included her in the list of 424 winning candidates who failed to file or filed deficient SOCEs because she did not sign her SOCE herself.

This much is clear: The duty to file SOCEs, and the responsibility for its contents, are not matters that candidates and parties may delegate to non-parties in elections.

Resolution No. 9476 has also spelled out a table of penalties for candidates with deficient SOCEs.

It states: “Failure to file statements or reports in connection with the electoral contributions and expenditures as required herein shall constitute an administrative offense for which the offenders shall be liable to pay an administrative fine ranging from One Thousand Pesos (PhP1,000.00) to Thirty Thousand Pesos (PhP30,000.00), at the discretion of the Commission.”

If at all, this is the most lamentable aspect of Comelec’s recent initiatives to enforce campaign finance laws. For what is clearly serious infraction of election laws, all that errant candidates must do is pay fines, according to a graduated scale of fees pegged on rank of office.

Second offenders might meet with stiffer penalties though. The Comelec resolution says that apart from stiffer fines o P2,000 to P60,000, “for the commission of a second or subsequent offense… the offender shall be subject to perpetual disqualification to hold public office.”

By all indications, this first-ever effort by the Comelec to enforce campaign finance laws to the letter is most commendable. For a change, people in power are now under scrutiny for failure to follow, know, or even read the letter of the law. Negligence or ignorance of the law indeed excuses no one. To the last, they courted our votes and gave their word that they would uphold and defend the laws of the land.

Yet still, the Comelec’s list of 424 officials who failed to file or filed deficient SOCEs results from its audit of only the form, not yet the content, of election spending reports. More surprises from the Comelec, and maybe more distressing news for errant candidates, should be more welcome.

All the citizens would do well with a Comelec serious about the role that integrity institutions must embrace — “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”

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