The Supreme Court (SC) has affirmed a ruling by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) dismissing the vote-buying complaint against Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte and Vice Mayor Gian Sotto during the May 13, 2019 elections.
In an en banc decision, the High Tribunal also junked alleged vote-buying charges lodged against then congressional candidate Elizabeth Delarmente and television show host Willie Revillame.
Belmonte, Sotto, Delarmente and Revillame were accused of violating the anti- vote-buying law stipulated in the Omnibus Election Code. The complaint was filed by PDP-Laban campaign manager Michael Defensor and secretary general Edwin Rodriguez.
In affirming the Comelec’s June 17, 2020 decision, the SC order penned by Justice Rodil Zalameda stressed that charges about the election offense of vote-buying “must be supported by credible evidence that substantiates the elements of the offense.”
“General averments of vote-buying, when accompanied by uncorroborated video clips and screenshots from such video clips, will be adjudged as mere speculation because they cannot substitute for proof required to establish probable cause,” the SC stressed.
The complaint stemmed from a campaign rally, specifically a miting de avance, held on May 11, 2019 along Roosevelt Ave. in Pitimini, Quezon City where Revillame and other television celebrities were also present.
The complaint stated that during the rally, Revillame gave out cash to some members of the audience and allegedly endorsed the candidates who were present like Belmonte, Sotto and Delarmente.
Submitted as evidence by the complainants were photographs and the video clip ostensibly taken during the campaign rally.
In dismissing the complaint, the Comelec en banc (full commission) adopted the recommendation of the poll body’s law department.
The law department said that based on the allegations, supporting video footage, and photographs presented, the petitioners (Defensor and Rodriguez) “failed to establish, by allegations or evidence, that vote-buying took place and that respondents (Belmonte and three others) are probably guilty thereof.”
The Comelec said “Belmonte, Sotto, and Delarmente admitted to being present in the event but did not give cash to the attendees of respondent Revillame’s program. Rather, Revillame gave cash to certain attendees of his program, but without indication that respondents Belmonte, Sotto and Delarmente were aware or gave consent to such acts.”
“Bare allegations in their Complaint Affidavit were declared as insufficient to establish probable cause. Petitioners failed to present corroborative testimony of any witness who may have personal knowledge about the giving of money. The video footage and the still photos showing Revillame giving cash to the audience, without testimonies of the person who took them, as well as the testimonies of the recipients of the money, are hearsay and have weak evidentiary value,” the SC noted.
“As respondent Revillame admitted that he made it clear to the audience that he was giving away jackets and money as his way of helping them buy medicine or daily necessities, it cannot be said that he uttered words to induce the audience to vote for respondents Belmonte, Sotto and Delarmente,” the court said.
The high court also said the miting de avance, or campaign rally of respondents Belmonte, Sotto and Delarmente, among others, and respondent Revillame’s entertainment program were found to be two distinct and separate events.
The candidates who spoke at the miting de avance left before Revillame began his program. Respondents Belmonte, Sotto, and Delarmente, who stayed behind, were mere spectators of Revillame’s program, the SC noted.
Adopting the findings and recommendations of its law department, the Comelec ordered the dismissal of the case against Belmonte, Sotto, Delarmente and Revillame.
When the Comelec affirmed its ruling, Defensor and Rodriguez elevated the case to the SC.
Resolving the petition, the SC said: “The Comelec en banc is correct in decreeing that petitioners’ Complaint Affidavit, as filed, is insufficient to sustain their allegations of vote-buying under Section 26l(a)(1) of the Omnibus Election Code.”
It said the complaint was not support by affidavits of witnesses “attesting to the offer or promise by or of the voter’s acceptance of money or other consideration from the relatives, leaders or sympathizers of a candidate” as required under Section 28 of the Electoral Reforms Law
“The absence of supporting affidavits shows the frailty of petitioners’ Complaint Affidavit and makes it vulnerable to dismissal. Submission of self-serving statements, uncorroborated audio and visual recordings, and photographs are not considered as direct, strong, convincing and indubitable evidence, it said.
The SC also noted that that “Revillame presented the affidavits of five recipients of his gifts. One recipient was a resident of Antipolo City and cannot be influenced to vote for Belmonte, Sotto, and Delarrnente, who were all candidates for elective positions in Quezon City.”
“All these affiants-recipients stated that Revillame did not ask them whether they were registered Quezon City voters. What mattered to Revillame was their attendance in the program. They were also unanimous in stating that Revillame, not respondents Belmonte, Sotto, and Delarmente, as the benevolent source of their gifts. That respondents were able to present the affidavits from the recipients of Revillame’s gifts starkly contrasts with petitioners’ lack of supporting evidence for their allegations,” it said.