Comelec renews contract with Smartmatic

Marichu Villanueva and Sheila Crisostomo - The Philippine Star
Comelec renews contract with Smartmatic

This was exposed yesterday by presidential political affairs Secretary Francis Tolentino, who denounced the secrecy by which the Comelec shrouded its decision to extend its contract with Smartmatic without the required public bidding.  File

MANILA, Philippines — Three weeks before his scheduled retirement, outgoing Commission on Elections (Comelec) acting chairman Christian Robert Lim signed the poll body’s decision to renew the contract of Venezuela-based Smartmatic Inc. to supply vote counting machines (VCMs) for the midterm elections in May 2019.

This was exposed yesterday by presidential political affairs Secretary Francis Tolentino, who denounced the secrecy by which the Comelec shrouded its decision to extend its contract with Smartmatic without the required public bidding.

“It is highly irregular that a contract of such national significance was consummated bereft of the acquired transparency needed by the electorate,” Tolentino told The STAR in a text message yesterday.

Tolentino, though, stopped short of calling it a “midnight deal,” as he demanded full disclosure of this renewal of the Smartmatic contract.

The Comelec, through its spokesman James Jimenez, confirmed Tolentino’s disclosure but denied that it was a midnight deal. The poll body failed to say why it did not make any official or public notice about its decision.

Jimenez explained that the commission made a unanimous decision to exercise its “option to purchase (OTP)” the VCMs because the budget approved by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) for next year’s elections is not enough.

“Considering our budget allocation, it was decided that financially or economically speaking, the best solution is OTP. It was the only way to make the budget fit,” he said in an interview.

OTP is a clause in the contract when Comelec leased the 97,517 VCM units for the 2016 presidential elections for P8.1 billion. This means that the Comelec could buy the units for a lesser amount. 

Lim, an appointee of former president Benigno Aquino III, is ending his seven-year term with the Comelec tomorrow.

Last Nov. 24, President Duterte named Comelec commissioner Sheriff Abas, another Aquino appointee, as the new Comelec chairman. Abas took over following the resignation of Comelec chairman Andres Bautista last Oct.11 over family and financial controversies.

Since Duterte’s nomination of Abas as new Comelec chairman has yet to be confirmed by the Commission on Appointments, Lim has been designated acting chairman of the poll body.

Tolentino, however, expressed indignation after he found out that the Comelec proceeded to approve the renewal of the Smartmatic supply contract without the benefit of public notice or public bidding.

Tolentino stumbled into this information which he shared with the media yesterday during the weekly Kapihan sa Manila Bay breakfast forum held at Café Adriatico in Malate, Manila.

He also disclosed that his lawyers will ask the Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET) to subpoena Bautista to appear as “hostile witness” to his election protest against detained Sen. Leila de Lima.

The seven-man SET is set to resume on Monday Tolentino’s recount petition where his lawyers are to present their witnesses.

Tolentino, who placed 13th  after De Lima in the May 2016 elections, is contesting before the SET the last spot in the “Magic 12” winning circle of the Senate race.

De Lima won by a little over one million votes against Tolentino to clinch the 12th and last spot.

In raising questions over Comelec’s renewal of the Smartmatic contract, Tolentino pointed out, his electoral protest against De Lima precisely revolved around the alleged electronic cheating by the Smartmatic servers that cost him his Senate bid.

After having served as Metropolitan Manila Development Authority chairman during the Aquino administration, Tolentino resigned and ran for senator under the PDP-Laban slate of Duterte.

Tolentino said his poll protest against De Lima at the SET is now in the advanced stage and he is looking forward to the scheduled resumption of his recount petition next week.

His lawyers sought the appearance of two Smartmatic executives and representatives from the three telecommunications companies, aside from Bautista, to be summoned as “adverse” witnesses and to testify under oath.

‘No midnight deal’

Asked if the extension of the Smartmatic contract can be considered as a midnight deal since Lim and Commissioner Arthur Lim are set to retire tomorrow, Jimenez noted it was “already a good deal” for the Comelec.

“A midnight deal is something that is supposed to be illicit or illegal. This contract is none of these things and all the commissioners agreed on that. Our resolution is open to public scrutiny,” Jimenez said.

The decision to exercise OTP, according to Jimenez, is contained in the Minute Resolution dated Dec. 18, 2017, three weeks before the OTP expired last Jan. 8.

“At this point, you know there will always be criticism for this but the commission, I think, stands on solid ground when it comes to the justification of its decision. The commission studied this thoroughly and again, we’re working on immovable (election schedules),” he maintained. 

Lack of budget

Jimenez added that the DBM had approved a budget of some P8.1 billion for the 2019 polls but the costs of some components of the automated election system (AES), estimated at around P4.3 billion, were “not factored in.”

“If your approved budget is P8.1 billion minus the costs of the AES components which is P4.3 billion, (what is left) will not be enough. There are other expenses that we have to consider,” he said.

The official gave assurance that the multi-sector Comelec Advisory Council (CAC) had been consulted and it was in favor of the re-use of the VCMs “which carries smaller costs than leasing brand new ones.”

Under the OTP contract, Smartmatic will have to shoulder the provision of voter receipts.

But while the voter receipts used in the 2016 polls were simple, Jimenez claimed that Smartmatic was required to provide “security marks” on the voter receipts in 2019.

“So that is free value. They will ensure that the digital images have one-to-one match to the ballot. Aside from that, the revision of the source code will be undertaken to allow interoperability with other suppliers,” he added.

In the 2013 polls, the Comelec also decided to buy the precinct count optical scan machines first used in the 2010 elections.

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