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Comelec’s lapses in Almazan and Lazo case exposed in second oral arguments session

Last March 10, magistrates from the Judiciary Department pinpointed the DLSU Commission of Elections’ (Comelec) own lapses in the case filed against them by Calvin Almazan and Ma. Bianca Lazo, Alyansang Tapat sa Lasallista’s (Tapat) intended slate members for BLAZE2022 and whose legal arguments were laid out the previous day.

Comelec’s ‘negligence’

In the last session, the petitioners argued that Comelec was negligent in notifying Almazan and Lazo of their missing requirements. Maria Angelica Mendoza, Comelec’s counsel, maintained and deflected this accusation. She stated that the political party rushed to submit all their required documents less than an hour before the 6 pm deadline on January 15. “This near-the-end submission of the party resulted in the failure to submit critical party requirements that generated another deadline extension,” she said.

Magistrate Jericho Quiro, however, gave notice to the fact that Comelec failed to issue an acknowledgment receipt after Tapat’s submission, which is required of the poll body by their memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the political parties. “You were given 30 minutes to issue the candidates of the acknowledgment of receipt,” he pressed. 

Mendoza’s defense was that the MOA’s wording implied that Comelec only needed to issue such a receipt after political parties notified the commission of their submission. Quiro dismissed this, pointing out that the contract stipulates that an acknowledgment receipt must be given.

Further, Mendoza also raised the limited manpower of the poll body, which she said was one reason why the political parties were encouraged to submit their requirements two days before the deadline, as detailed in their MOA. The influx of submissions, she defended, made it difficult for Comelec to effectively and quickly follow through with the checking process.

This posed another concern from the magistrate. “If Comelec was well aware of the fact that it had a lack of manpower,” Quiro posited, “then why did it not sign or create a memorandum of agreement more favorable to it…whose provisions could be accommodated by the present resources?” Mendoza’s take was that the MOA should be negotiated on with all parties concerned. “So all the stipulations there must be agreed upon by the parties on there, your honor,” she uttered.

The magistrates also raised the 14-hour gap between the time the documents were checked and Tapat was notified. Quiro raised, “Wouldn’t you characterize this as negligence?” Mendoza maintained that it was not since the political parties already knew of Comelec’s document tracking system (DTS), which she later said should have informed them of the status of their submissions.

Quiro, however, countered, noting that the DTS is not the medium of communication prescribed in the MOA, which instead required the notice to be sent through SMS or email.

Responding to Magistrate Reginald Bayeta IV’s query, Mendoza also admitted that her side is assuming that political parties and their members are constantly checking the DTS.

Mendoza maintained that Comelec’s DTS, had Tapat checked it, already notifies parties about missed requirements. However, the magistrates disputed the tracker’s validity since it was not mentioned in any of the official documents and statutes concerning the elections. “Why should we construe the DTS as something that is a mere beneficial initiative of Comelec rather than a circumvention of the law?” challenged Deputy Chief Magistrate Andre Miranda.

Questioned by Miranda on Comelec’s delay, Mendoza scrambled to instead highlight that Comelec Chairperson John Christian Ababan was stuck in “consecutive meetings” until 1 am that evening and had urgent matters to attend to. The deputy chief magistrate did not press further.

Miranda, meanwhile, turned to the counsel’s own argument of “sense of urgency” lacking from Tapat to rush to submit the missing requirements once they were notified. If Comelec had the sense of urgency, he asked, “Why didn’t Mr. Ababan delegate the task of informing people that some of the requirements are lacking?”

Quiro also quizzed Mendoza on the lack of recordings for meetings supposedly held with Comelec last January 16 and 18,  to which the latter said was “due to fatigue” during the calls.

The magistrate further asked if it was true that the USG Administrative Code stated that all official meetings of the USG must be recorded. Mendoza conceded that she had a “vague memory” regarding that provision. Quiro, in turn, asked whether the missing recordings only support the petitioners’ argument that Comelec was negligent, to which Mendoza disagreed. 

Substantive evidence and due process

Rebutting the petitioners’ argument on Comelec’s alleged violation of due process, Mendoza cited the Online Election Code, which says that failure to submit all requirements deems the candidate ineligible to run. “The lapse of deadline without the submission of the petitioners cover letters enforces Comelec that, by default, their initial decision is to declare the petitioners ineligible,” she said.

She also demonstrated that formal hearings—which Tapat claimed were not conducted when they appealed for a reconsideration—are not required for administrative proceedings as the “essence of due process is simply to be heard.” Their negotiation meeting on January 18, the counsel reasoned, satisfies such standard. 

In the same meeting, an excuse letter and a medical certificate for a certain Tapat member only identified as “Ms. Centeno”, who was tasked to submit candidacy requirements, were forwarded to Comelec as evidence to validate their position.

Noting that the said papers were the only evidence Comelec considered in arriving at their decision against Almazan and Lazo, Miranda questioned why the commission still arrived at an unfavorable ruling, given that the said files could actually support Almazan and Lazo’s case.

Mendoza answered that anyone that had access to the drive containing the documents could have submitted on Centeno’s behalf.

Exercising leniency 

Mendoza put to light that Comelec was lenient and even gave a notice of extension, moving the deadline for the submission of the candidacy requirements from January 14 to January 15 to give consideration to the parties’ difficulty to obtain signatures from the needed offices. This was again further extended to January 16. 

“Tapat had 27 days to prepare all of their prospective candidates’ COC (certificates of candidacy) and five days, four hours, and five minutes to submit and comply with the requirements stipulated in the Online Election Code,“ Mendoza pressed.

However, Bayeta questioned Comelec’s supposed leniency, considering that the petitioners were only notified of the missing requirements less than an hour before the deadline. Mendoza still contended that the political parties could have monitored the DTS, saying that there is evidence that proves that the DTS serves as the main medium of relaying information to the political parties.

Miranda also questioned if Comelec can even yield leniency considering that it can easily be outvoted  by the two political parties when amending the MOA, which requires a two-thirds vote. “If Comelec is outvoted, the will of the remaining parties would prevail,” he remarked. Because of this, he furthered, it is not possible for the Comelec to exercise maximum leniency in the first place as it does not have the capacity to be lenient at all.

Good faith vs. bad faith 

Responding to a question by Quiro, Mendoza said that Tapat’s act of rushing to submit missing requirements was not a sign of good faith. But the magistrate asked whether it was then of bad faith and whether the elements of intention to deceive, harm, or cause misinterpretation were thus present, which she admitted were not.

The magistrate went on stating that the submission of an affidavit and Centeno’s medical certificate is an attestation of good faith, and it would thus have been Comelec’s responsibility to disprove such. “Are there any evidence you bring to us to dispute it?” he asked.

“Your Honor, there is none,” Mendoza replied. 

With both the petitioners’ and respondent’s cases presented, the decision hearing will be held on March 12 at 6 pm.

By Kim Balasabas

By Michele Gelvoleo

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