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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Monday, January 28, 2013

P-Noy’s bail for Acosta once again puts Sandiganbayan in awkward position. Bishops expected to confront PCOS issue, which could force Comelec to be more transparent. In failing to scrutinize Congress’ expenditures, COA abdicates constitutional mandate. Due to fear of its appropriation being frozen?



President Aquino has once again offered to bail out a close associate, just like what he did with new Comelec Commissioner Grace Padaca, whose P70,000 bail that P-Noy paid has doubtless caused her arrest order from Sandiganbayan for graft to remain unserved.  Presidential Adviser for Environmental Protection Nereus Acosta, together with his mother, former Rep. Soccoro Acosta, has a standing order for arrest by the graft court on perjury charges, but from Davos P-Noy was quoted as making the offer to finance the P6,000 bail for him.

The problem with P-Noy’s rescuing via bail of people close to him is that he is in reality interfering with the justice system and placing the graft court in a most awkward position. In Padaca’s case, as she now brags, she is beyond the reach of the Sandiganbayan as she is already a Comelec Commissioner with a fixed term of seven years and can only be removed by impeachment. To this day Padaca’s appointment leaves a bad taste in the mouth of many citizens.

A bail for Acosta would achieve the same result, for how can the graft court push his case if it’s no less than the President coming to his rescue. As in a number of other cases, he should be the first to demonstrate a healthier respect for the law and the separation of powers.

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The Comelec reported last weekend that except for the slow transmission in some areas, field tests it ran on the PCOS machines in ten different areas in the country was “successful,” and spokesperson James Jimenez was quoted as saying, “We are satisfied with the test.” He said majority of the PCOS machines transmitted test results 100%, and that those exhibiting failures are no cause for worry, for the Comelec can implement “contingency measures” and “improve the system.”

The problem is that as the Automated Election System Watch (AES Watch) complained to media, Comelec allowed no outsiders, including media, to witness its field testings---treating the tests as “an internal matter.” AES Wastch asserted that it’s important for the public to observe the critical process of testing the machines’ reliability in transmission, especially since the public is already quite suspicious of Comelec following the fraud-marred 2010 elections. 

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In response Jimenez was quoted as saying that Comelec restricted public participation inasmuch as it’s currently involved in a lot of processes “internal to the system” but that the public, including media and the IT experts, would be invited to the mock elections it will conduct next week.

Comelec’s response to the AES complaint is a welcome development and we look forward to the mock elections. But as former Comelec Commissioner Gus Lagman, whom this blogger contacted for his reaction, noted, it’s not so much the transmission of election results that’s the problem as it’s what goes into the PCOS machines and out to the Comelec server.

I agree, and the cases in a number of places across the country in the 2010 elections amply demonstrated the havoc of marred elections. For instance, how can an entire line-up of candidates led by those for national office as well as some 25 or 26 mayors lose wholesale? This is just too statistically impossible to happen.

Would the cheating be perfected in the coming elections?

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There are disturbing talks that this early some syndicates have already opened the “bidding” in some places for posts in the mid-term elections. For instance, in northern Mindanao, there are reports that bidding starts from P20million upwards.  Let’s hope that if there are indeed such evil schemes cooking to thwart the democratic will of the people, they could be pre-empted, the syndicates busted and its members jailed.

The Catholic bishops who close their three-day annual general assembly today are expected to press for a resolution of the PCOS issue, among other issues. Lending their collective voice to this issue of cheating via the PCOS machines should compel the Comelec to be more open and sensitive to public outcry for safe-guarding the electoral system in May, practice more transparency in its processes of setting up the AES and crack down on corruption in its ranks.

The alternative could be a revolution.

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Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chair of the Senate accounts committee, was quoted as saying that in scrutinizing the records of his colleague Miriam Defensor Santiago, he wanted to find out if indeed she has “moral ascendancy” in her posturings against Senate President Enrile. Lacson does not mention Santiago but there’s little doubt that the senator he refers to who allotted part of her MOOE to pay the P840, 000 annual rentals for an extension office in her family-owned building is the Ilongga firebrand.

On the other hand, Sen. Pia Cayetano wonders aloud why JPE is so mad at her when all she did, according to her, was to stand firmly for the RH bill which he had staunchly opposed. As I see it, the quarrel with the Cayetanos cut deep within the aging Senate leader after her sibling Alan Peter blew out in the open l’affaire Gigi; this, in turn, provoke JPE to raise the P37million debt allegedly incurred from him by their father, the late Sen. Rene Cayetano, when he was starting his public career.

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What the whole Senate mess shows is that with almost no exception no one there has any moral ascendancy alright---and how this practice of helping themselves to public funds sans accounting began from the mid-‘90s and through various Senate leaderships. The P250,000-check mess just blew off the lid.

I remember how a senator was heard at the height of the Corona impeachment telling a colleague how he felt queazy that the senators are probing into all the lurid details of the water-damaged (and hence sold at huge discount) condo unit in Global City the Coronas had acquired---when the senators were buying far plushier condos left and right.  Yet they had the gall to convict him.

The issue of the Senate’s and the House’s lack of moral ascendancy came to a head earlier last week when it was disclosed by COA Chief Grace Pulido-Tan herself that in both chambers members only file certifications of expenditures, and not actual receipts. 

This means that in actual practice, members of Congress are not being held to account by COA--- despite the fact that in Article IX on “Constitutional Commissions,” specifically on “D. The Commission on Audit,” the Constitution gives COA in Sec. 2. (1) “the power, authority, and duty to examine, audit,  and settle all accounts pertaining to the revenue and receipts of, and expenditures or uses of funds and property, owned or held in trust by, or pertaining to, the Government, or any of its subdivisions, agencies, or instrumentalities…”  

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 In other words, COA has the power and duty to scrutinize expenditures by Congress, BUT HAS ABDICATED IT.  I spoke about this predicament even to members of Congress themselves and it reinforced my suspicion that COA’s timidity in dealing with Congress stems from its FEAR that its budget could be jeopardized if it goes hammer and tongs at its members.

As per the Constitution, COA, like the Comelec and the Civil Service Commission, “shall enjoy fiscal autonomy. Their approved annual appropriations shall be automatically and regularly released.” So, you readers might ask, if this is the case, why can't COA act more independently? The devil is in the word “appropriations.”

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Former Com. Chair Hermilando Mandanas
As former House ways and means committee chair Hermilando Mandanas, who’s finishing his three terms---and who was ousted from this committee for refusing to sign the Corona impeachment complaint without first reading it---explained, unlike local governments which are guaranteed their own budgets from various sources of revenues as defined by law, COA has to go through budget hearings and Congress has to APPROVE ITS ANNUAL APPROPRIATION.



Rep. Mandanas stressed to me that over the past three congresses, he filed bills seeking to grant COA, along with the two other constitutional commissions, the Supreme Court and the Office of the Ombudsman, their own budget reflecting a fixed sharing of national revenues and other sources. But unfortunately these bills didn’t sail past filing---for obvious reasons.



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