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YEAR-ENDER:Comelec gets serious with campaign finances

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) was once seen as a passive receiver of candidates' post-election campaign finance reports.

The constitutional body, after all, was too busy conducting the country's democratic exercises to go after errant candidates, more so those who've already assumed office.
But when it disqualified an elected governor for overspending, and it ordered more than 400 elected officials to "vacate their seats" over supposedly inaccurate campaign finance disclosures, the Comelec showed for the first time it meant business.
The 2013 midterm elections came on the heels of the 2010 presidential polls, described in an investigative report as the country's "costliest" elections to date when candidates took advantage of Comelec's leniency and spent millions in a bid to win.
With lessons learned, the Comelec spared no mercy for the winners of the 2013 synchronized national and local elections.  
In December, the Comelec ordered some 400 district representatives and local officials to "vacate their seats" for failing to correctly disclose campaign finances.

The list crossed party lines. Interestingly, a majority of those on the list were from the administration Liberal Party of President Benigno Aquino III, who once had Sixto Brillantes Jr., now Comelec chairman, as his election lawyer.
The legal basis for the move is in the Omnibus Election Code, which prohibits elected officials from assuming office if they fail to file their statements of contributions and expenditures (SOCE). The Comelec deems a SOCE "not filed" if it is deficient or inaccurate.
Brillantes admits it is the first time the Comelec is enforcing the provision.
The Omnibus Election Code, enacted in 1985, once deemed failure to submit a SOCE a criminal offense. But a 1991 law that synchronized the local and national elections repealed the criminal liability and changed the penalty to "administrative fines."
In September, the Comelec also made headlines when its First Division upheld a disqualification case against incumbent Laguna Governor Emilio Ramon "ER" Ejercito, an actor, for overspending on his campaign.

Commissioner Lucenito Tagle said this was the first time a division disqualified a candidate for overspending.
Campaign finance was a gray area before the 2010 elections, said lawyer Rona Ann Caritos, acting executive director of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections. But when voters saw a barrage of advertisements across different media platforms three years ago, the citizenry started asking if there ever was a spending cap.
No candidates were called to account for campaign finances in 2010, when Comelec focused on conducting the country's first automated elections.
"For the longest time na nagsa-submit ang mga candidates, ang nangyayari, receive lang ng receive ang Commission," Caritos said.
The experience in 2010 compelled the Comelec to release a resolution to curb the spiralling extravagance of some candidates. It created the Comelec's first Campaign Finance Unit to audit the SOCEs.
The unit is tasked with "[auditing] all reports, statements and contracts" and "[determining] compliance by the candidates, parties, contributors, and election contractors."
Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez said in an e-mail that the unit has 18 auditors, including lawyers and public accountants, and 35 support staff.
But the unit has too small a staff to do little more than a surface scan of voluminous expense documents. In fact, in the Comelec's list of errant elected officials, some were penalized on "technicalities" such as the lack of candidates' signature or the submission of the wrong form.
The Comelec's audit has yet to determine if expense reports match the attached official receipts, logbooks, advertising contracts with television networks, and other documents the CFU is tasked with analyzing.
"They're not yet capacitated to audit further... Ang magagawa talaga nila is to see if the candidates complied with the form. 'Yan ang unang pasada," Carito said, noting that it was still a good start.
But the Comelec spokesperson said the Comelec's audit is far from over.
"(T)he recent list of cited elected officials are the result of only the first-level of checking. After a SOCE has been checked for proper form, then we check the contents and see if they are accurate and if the candidate went over the spending limit," Jimenez said.
Jimenez added the Comelec is working on developing the CFU into a full-fledged department, with its own budget and staff to better perform its duties.
He added the commission will release another list of errant elected officials after the CFU crosschecks expense reports with the attached documents.
"And it won't be too late, as the appropriate cases may be filed against them, then," Jimenez said, noting that a possible case of overspending is an election offense.
The Comelec's reforms in campaign finance, which includes requiring bets in the October barangay polls to submit SOCEs, is aimed at an electoral exercise with even higher stakes: the 2016 presidential elections.
If the experience in 2013 is any indication, the Comelec is sending the message that Philippine elections will no longer be business as usual. — JDS, GMA News