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Up to Comelec to explain deal with Smartmatic – Palace

Aurea Calica - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Malacañang is leaving it up to the Commission on Elections to explain its deal with Smartmatic-Total Information Management Corp. for the lease of optical mark reader machines (OMR) amid claims by a Comelec official that the poll body was taken advantage of due to time constraints.

Deputy presidential spokesman Abigail Valte said yesterday the Palace would not dwell on the details of the contract between the Comelec and Smartmatic.

Valte said the poll body is an independent and separate institution outside of the Office of the President.

“It is their mandate to ensure clean and orderly elections and how they will do that is up to them, as long as it is done within the bounds of the law,” she said.

Valte said the Palace was aware that Commissioners Ma. Rowena Amelia Guanzon and Sheriff Abas did not want to sign the en banc resolution allowing the Comelec to lease 93,977 OMR machines for the 2016 polls.

“The Comelec operates as a collegial body. So while the commissioners may have expressed reservations, the rest of the Comelec is moving in a certain direction,” Valte said.

Earlier, Guanzon said the Comelec was burdened with time constraints in the preparations for next year’s elections and “what is further deplorable in this whole state of affairs is that Smartmatic seemed to have taken advantage…”

“Their refusal to participate in the bidding for the refurbishment of the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines pushed the commission to the edge so that it is left with no choice but to award to Smartmatic the contract,” she said.

“Our hands are tied, but it is not of our own making. If only there is enough time for the commission, the refurbishment of the existing PCOS machines is the more advantageous course to take,” she added.

For his part, Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III said former Comelec officials should be made to answer for the troubles faced by the poll body regarding the lease of new OMR machines.

Pimentel, co-chairman of the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee on the Automated Election System and chairman of the Senate committee on electoral reforms, said Comelec chief Andres Bautista along with Guanzon and Abbas should not be blamed since they were appointed to the poll body recently.

“If we want to blame someone, we have to ask the previous Comelec leadership and the former commissioners who knew the real story. What happened and why did they relax until it was time to as they say: finished or not finished, pass your paper,” he said.

New Smartmatic deal may be illegal

The new deal struck by the Comelec with Smartmatic for the lease of 93,977 OMR machines may be illegal, Rep. Terry Ridon of party-list group Kabataan said yesterday.

Ridon said he would ask the committee on suffrage and electoral reform of the House of Representatives to determine whether the transaction complies with Republic Act 9369 or the Automated Election System (AES) Law.

“It has been reported that Comelec will lease new machines from Smartmatic. But we need to ask: are these machines compliant with existing election laws, especially the provision in Section 10 of RA 9369, which states that systems used for elections should first be tested successful in either local or foreign elections?” he said.

Ridon said the new OMR machines might not possess the exact specifications and software as those used in the 2010 and 2013 elections and would have to undergo extensive evaluation and testing as the AES law requires.

He said Section 10 of RA 9369 authorizes the Comelec to procure equipment and materials, including software, from local and foreign sources, subject to accounting and auditing rules.

However, Ridon pointed out that the law further provides: “With respect to the May 10, 2010 elections and succeeding electoral exercises, the system procured must have demonstrated capability and been successfully used in a prior electoral exercise here or abroad. Participation in the 2007 pilot exercise shall not be conclusive of the system’s fitness.”

“As the integrity of the national elections is at stake, we need to follow the law to the letter. The new OMR machines set to be leased by the Comelec needs to comply with the law, especially with regard to the provision on demonstration of capability in past local or foreign elections,” he said.

He said Smartmatic could not have complied with this provision as it has yet to manufacture the more than 93,000 OMR machines it would lease to the Comelec.

Ridon also questioned the decision of the Comelec to lease new voting-counting machines instead of refurbishing the 81,896 PCOS  machines it bought from Smartmatic in 2013.

“By approving the new lease deal, the Comelec just wasted P10 billion worth of taxpayers’ money, excluding costs for storage and maintenance,” he said.

“Despite this fact, the Comelec still decided to proceed with the new lease agreement, apparently under duress,” he said, citing the statements of Commissioners Rowena Guanzon and Sheriff Abas that Smartmatic practically “pushed (the Comelec) to the edge” to select the lease deal.

He noted that Guanzon declared that one of the primary reasons why the poll body resorted to the lease option was Smartmatic’s refusal to join the bidding for the refurbishment and upgrade of the old PCOS machines it supplied to the commission.

Ridon said that former Comelec chairman Sixto Brillantes and Smartmatic officers had told congressmen that the PCOS units were good for three elections up to 2016.

He stressed that aside from the huge cost of the 81,896 PCOS machines that would continue to gather dust in a warehouse the Comelec is renting, taxpayers would be shelling out an additional P3.2 billion for the lease deal.

“The refurbishment with upgrade option would have cost only P3.1 billion, while the lease of an additional 71,000 OMR machines, on top of 23,000 earlier contracted, would cost P6.3 billion,” Ridon said.

He said the new Comelec leadership is apparently following the wasteful spending practices of its predecessors.  – With Jess Diaz, Marvin Sy

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