By Che de los Reyes

THEY WERE warned to watch out, and now they are bound to cry.

According to the Commission on Elections (Comelec), nearly 400 local candidates in the 2010 and 2013 elections may soon be facing charges of campaign overspending, and that could mean more than their having Christmas stockings full of coal.

Should they be found guilty, they could be barred from running for any elective position and deprived of the right to vote. They could also face jail time of one to six years without probation under the Omnibus Election Code (Batas Pambansa Blg. 881). After all, under the law, going over campaign spending limits is an election offense, which is considered a criminal offense in this country.

As of Dec. 19, 2014, Comelec’s Campaign Finance Unit (CFU) has already filed before the Commission’s Law Department 380 cases of campaign overspending against local candidates who ran in the last two polls. Out of this total, 272 ran in 2010 and the remaining 108 in 2013.

But these cases are only “the tip of the iceberg,” says CFU prosecutor Sabino Mejarito. The CFU, he says, is not yet done sifting through the volumes of campaign-finance records of all national and local candidates in the 2010 and 2013 elections.

The Unit’s current ‘naughty list’ covers only local candidates who ran for district representative, provincial, and city and municipal positions. It has yet to submit to the Comelec Law Department campaign overspending cases against candidates who went for higher posts.

Time is not on Comelec’s side, though. According to lawyer Sonia Bea Wee-Lozada of the Office of Commissioner Christian Robert S. Lim, Comelec has only three months or so – or until the first quarter of 2015 — to prosecute campaign overspending cases related to the 2010 elections; May 10, 2015 marks the end of the five-year prescription period for 2010 election offense cases. This is why the CFU is focusing on prosecuting these 2010 cases first, Wee-Lozada explains.

Formed only in 2012, the CFU will have to examine the campaign finance records of candidates who ran in the 2010 polls simultaneously with those of the 44,326 candidates who ran for 17,911 positions in the 2013 elections (from senators to Sangguniang Bayan members, as well as ARMM governor, regional governor, and assemblymen).

The CFU’s 30 staffers will likely not be able to take a break during the upcoming holidays – and in the months beyond, for that matter. Consider these figures from May to December 2014 that indicate the CFU’s balance of work:

* 7,028 candidates who failed to file their Statements of Election Contributions and Expenditures (SOCE) in the 2010 and 2013 elections;
* 1,059 candidates to whom notices to settle late penalty and/or correct minor deficiencies were sent;
* 331 candidates who responded to the notices;
* 115 pending certificates of compliance to be issued; and
* 959 election overspending cases that are being reviewed.

Such volume of work could make even the most cheerful Christmas elf experience depression. But Commissioner Lim himself would rather highlight the upside: Comelec’s efforts to audit campaign finance in the 2013 elections, he says, have made its mark on candidates and political parties.

“There was really an effort on the part of the candidates to complete (their submission of the SOCE),” Lim says. He adds that this was especially true in the aftermath of Comelec’s publication in December 2013 of a list of 422 elected officials, political parties, and party-list groups that did not submit their SOCEs after the extended deadline for submission on June 30, 2013. The officials on the list were also ordered to vacate their posts due to non-compliance with campaign finance rules.

After the list’s publication, the CFU found itself swamped with the deluge of submissions and payment of fines for late filing – including those from candidates whose reports were not deemed by the CFU as problematic, says Lim.

“It was a shock to the system na, uy mahigpit pala dito (that, hey, they are really strict),” the commissioner recalls. In fact, from May 9 to June 30, 2014 alone, the CFU was able to collect P3.87 million in late fines from the candidates. In just six months, or in December 2014, that amount has more than doubled into P8.1 million, according to figures shared by Lim’s office to PCIJ.

Just keeping the candidates on their toes about how they raise funds and spend for the campaign is already a big feat, especially going into the 2016 presidential elections, says Lim.

“I want to continue that we’re prosecuting so that candidates will be more aware in 2016,” he says.

The process, however, is hardly over once the CFU files a case with the Comelec Law Department. Once a case is docketed, the Law Department conducts a preliminary investigation. Based on the investigation’s results, the lawyers will then come up with a resolution stating whether or not there is probable cause. This resolution is forwarded to the Comelec En Banc, which reviews it and decides whether to dismiss or affirm it.

Cases affirmed by the Comelec En Banc are then filed before the regional trial court that has jurisdiction over the congressional district, province, city, or municipality where the individual charged with campaign overspending had filed his or her candidacy.

Interestingly, the campaign overspending case involving then Laguna gubernatorial candidate E.R. Ejercito did not go this route. This was because it actually stemmed from an election protest filed before Ejercito was officially proclaimed winner of the May 2013 gubernatorial race in Laguna.

Ejercito’s political rival, former Laguna Rep. Edgar San Luis, had filed the protest. CFU then audited Ejercito’s campaign contribution and spending report, and compared this with the advertising contracts submitted by TV networks that aired Ejercito’s political ads. Based on these documents, Ejercito was found to have gone over his P4.6 million campaign spending limit by at least P19 million; his campaign ad expenses alone reached a total of more than P23 million.

In September 2013, Comelec’s First Division issued a decision to disqualify Ejercito. This was unanimously affirmed by the Comelec En Banc on May 21, 2014. Because the Comelec En Ban’c decision was deemed executory, Ejercito was asked to vacate his post immediately. A stand-off lasted several days before Ejercito finally stepped down on May 30, 2014. He was replaced by Vice Governor Ramil Hernandez.

Ejercito filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, which has the power to reverse the Comelec’s decision. Last Nov. 25, however, the Supreme Court upheld the Comelec’s decision to disqualify Ejercito for campaign overspending.

Ejercito’s disqualification case was administrative in nature. As to his criminal liability for campaign overspending, Wee-Lozada says that the CFU is currently in the process of “collating documentary evidence in relation to the criminal complaint.”

“The quantum of evidence required is higher for criminal cases,” she says. “Hence, we want to be very thorough and meticulous in the preparation of the complaint.”

Update: As of Dec. 25, 2014, Comelec Planning Director and Campaign Finance Unit Head Ferdinand T. Rafanan says that the CFU has already “filed 435 criminal complaints for overspending against candidates since September 2014.” Said complaints are undergoing preliminary investigation in the Law Department. He also says that the CFU “will file hundreds of cases more before May 2015.”

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