THE Commission on Elections drew heavy fire Friday from poll watchdogs, a lawmaker and others who were dismayed by its decision to lease almost 94,000 optical mark reader (OMR) machines from Smartmatic-Total Information Management Corp., which has been sued for electoral sabotage.
“They are just following what Smartmatic wants. It’s all a sham. Whatever Smartmatic wants, that’s what they’ll do,” said former elections commissioner Augusto Lagman, who had filed an electoral sabotage complaint against the company in July.
Lagman said the Comelec was using time constraints as an excuse to opt for awarding the P10 billion lease contract, and could have avoided having to shelve the thousands of precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines used in the previous elections if only they had done the necessary maintenance and repair of the units.
“Part of the contract with Smartmatic was the training of the Comelec staff on diagnostics and repair of the machines. Did they do that? If they did, then the trained people could have started the repair in late 2014 and the whole of 2015,” Lagman said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares described the Comelec decision as “suspicious,” and accused it of wasting money.
He called on the Comelec to reconsider a hybrid system proposed by Lagman, and questioned the poll agency’s findings that it would be more expensive.
“We should be very vigilant on this issue,” Colmenares said.
Election lawyer Romulo Macalintal also questioned the Comelec for spending so much to buy 81,896 PCOS machines, then spending more on 94,000 leased OMR machines.
Automated Election System Watch spokesman Nelson Celis also expressed dismayed over the Comelec deal.
“Without awaiting the Supreme Court action on the legal questions raised against the Comelec and Smartmatic, the Comelec proceeded to award the lease of 94,000 expensive new PCOS units to a sham joint venture, in violation of the Constitution and laws as well as COA regulations. Such impunity, lies and blatant treachery to voters, taxpayers and the Filipino people,” he said.
Auxiliary Manila Bishop Broderick Pabillo agreed with Celis, saying the poll body should have waited for the Supreme Court’s decision before announcing it had chosen Smartmatic to supply the 93,977 OMR machines.
The Supreme Court had struck down an earlier Comelec contract with Smartmatic to refurbish the old PCOS machines because the poll body did not bid out the work.
“It’s fishy and smelly because the Comelec seems tied to Smartmatic,” the bishop said.
In her concurring opinion in support of the lease contract, Comelec Commissioner Rowena Guanzon appealed to the public to understand their “difficult predicament” citing lack of time and said they had no choice but to award the deal to Smartmatic-TIM.
“What is further deplorable in this whole state of affairs is that the Smartmatic joint venture seemed to have taken advantage of the time constraint the commission is confronted with,” Guanzon wrote.
“Their refusal to participate in the bidding for the refurbishment of the existing PCOS machines is, to my mind, pushing the commission to the edge so that it is left with no choice but to award to Smartmatic the lease with option to purchase… which we would not have preferred over the less costly refurbishment of the existing PCOS machines,” Guanzon said.
Without naming former commissioner Sixto Brillants Jr., Guanzon blamed previous Comelec members for awarding a negotiated contract to Smartmatic to refurbish the old machines, only to see the deal struck down by the Supreme Court.
“Our hands are tied, but it is not of our own making,” she said.
Guanzon said that if the Comelec had enough time, she would choose to refurbish the old PCOS machines.
Comelec Commissioner Sheriff Abas also admitted that he preferred the option to refurbish the old PCOs machines, saying this would be more economical and advantageous to the government.
However, he said, the Comelec had only nine months before the May 2016 elections to refurbish thousands of PCOS machines.
“This period would have to be added to the procurement timeline, which has yet to be completed considering the recent failure of the second round of bidding for refurbishment. In other words, opting to refurbish puts the timely conduct of the 2016 elections in possible jeopardy,” Abas said.
Both commissioners Arthur Lim and Luie Tito Guia believed that using Filipino-made technology is the best option for future voting exercises, but not for the 2016 elections.
Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista said they expect several legal challenges against the lease contract.
“Even before we could reach today’s decision, a cacophony of various legal challenges have been brought against the Comelec, threatening to sideline our ongoing preparations, or worse, risking to frustrate the conduct of our election next year,” Bautista said.
“No doubt, form our decision, others will see another opportunity to find fault, unmindful and inconsiderate of the reality that we are running out of time to properly and adequately prepare for next year’s elections,” he added.
Smartmatic said it was unfair for Guanzon to pin the blame on them.
“We respect the separate concurring opinion of Commissioner Guanzon. However, we beg to differ with her assertions,” Smartmatic-TIM president Cesar Flores said.
“It is unfair to pin the blame on us when the reason why the refurbishment could not have been done in time were the interminable delays caused by all the legal cases and Comelec’s own actions or inaction,” he added.
Flores said Smartmatic had been proposing the refurbishment of the PCOS machines since 2013.
“Records will bear out the fact that we had been vigorously recommending this option as a means for the government to save money and to maximize its investment,” Flores said.
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