Serious, furious

THIS COULD be the very first time in the history of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) that campaign-finance violations will be treated seriously. Never before has the failure to submit truthful campaign finance reports have so much implication for the filers concerned.

Comelec itself is first to admit that in previous elections, it had been quite lax even with keeping a reliable record of candidates, political parties, and party-list groups — as well as campaign donors, contractors, and media entities — who did and did not file their Statement of Election Contributions and Expenditures (SECEs).

Now that an ad hoc Campaign Finance Unit (CFU) has been put in place with the issuance of Comelec Resolution No. 9476 in June last year, and with its budget already approved by the Comelec En Banc, the Commission seems to be all business in holding campaign-finance violators to account.

The first step for the CFU, says Commissioner Christian Robert S. Lim, is to check the SECEs for completeness and compliance to the format required. Beginning June 13, the submission deadline, until just before June 30, or before the candidates can take their oath of office, the CFU will be coming up with a list of those who filed their reports and those who did not. The list will be forwarded to the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), says Lim, who happens to be head of the CFU.

Republic Act No. 7166 prohibits winning candidates from “entering into the duties of his office until he has filed” the SECE. For the 2013 elections, Comelec made sure that this provision will be strictly enforced through a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that it signed with DILG in March 2012. The MOA requires winning local candidates to furnish DILG with a certification from Comelec that they have duly submitted their SECE. Only then would they be allowed to take their oath of office come June 30. This is why Lim and company are under such intense pressure to finish the list of non-filers before month’s end.

Also a significant provision in the Comelec-DILG MOA is the perpetual disqualification of both winning and losing candidates from running in any elective post upon their failure to submit their SECE twice. Comelec’s Law Department is now hard at work to finish verifying its list of candidates who did not file their SECEs in 2007 and 2010.

And just in case these aren’t enough to deter candidates from disregarding the SECE submission requirement, Comelec plans to file, through the Department of Justice (DOJ), perjury charges against violators. This has been made possible with the introduction in the new Certificate of Candidacy form for the May 13, 2013 polls, a declaration by the candidate, under oath, that he or she will file within 30 days after the elections a “full, true and itemized” SECE. Lim says the Commission plans to endorse a list of all candidates who did not file their SECE to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for legal action as well.

The CFU’s full audit of all senatorial candidates and major national parties will continue until the next six months. Lim says that because it would be quite impossible for the fledgling CFU to make a full audit of all local candidates at this point, they will just be randomly selected for audit.

A candidate who will be proven to have underdeclared campaign expenditures in his or her SECE, but still has not breached the spending limit, will likewise be referred to the DOJ for possible filing of a case of perjury, which is a criminal offense under the Revised Penal Code.

The story varies slightly for candidates and parties who will be proven by the Comelec audit to have actually overspent. Possible criminal charges also await candidates and parties found to have overspent in their campaigns.

Exceeding campaign-spending limits is considered an election offense. It is punishable not only under the Omnibus Election Code but also under The Revised Penal Code as a possible case of “perjury.”

According to Lim, the CFU will refer to the Comelec’s Law Department for preliminary investigation all candidates and parties who are suspected of overspending. If warranted, the Commission will then press criminal charges against the candidates or parties in question, and file such cases with the Regional Trial Court under whose jurisdiction the overspending offense was committed.

But candidates and parties are not the only ones who would come under the CFU’s close scrutiny. Contractors and contributors, says Lim, may also be held criminally liable for failing to file their reports to Comelec. For instance, a printing press contracted by a candidate to print campaign posters may fail to submit a Report of Contractors and Business Firms to Comelec. If the printing press in question appears in the candidate’s SECE, however, Comelec will file criminal charges against it for committing an election offense. The same goes for contributors, Lim says. The maximum penalty for election offenses: six years in jail.

Make no mistake, though: For all the regulations it issued and its plans of auditing the reports of spending and contributions, Lim clarifies that the Commission’s primary intention is “not to put people in jail, but to encourage them to file.” — PCIJ, June 2013

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