Isko Moreno’s excessive campaign spending case still in limbo after 5 years

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MANILA, Philippines — Former Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso, who placed fourth in the 2022 presidential race, is facing an overspending lawsuit filed by the Campaign Finance Office (CFO) of the Electoral Commission.

According to documents obtained by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), the chief financial officer claimed Domagoso exceeded spending limits by more than 100,000 pesos when he ran for vice president in Manila in the 2013 elections. , almost ten years ago.

Under Republic Act 7166, a candidate with the support of a political party who is not running for either president or vice president can only spend up to 3P per registered voter in his constituency. Candidates without a political party can spend up to P5 per registered voter.

In 2013, Manila had a total of 953,382 registered voters, according to data from Comelec’s Election Records and Statistics Division. This meant that a candidate running under a political party for a municipal government post in 2013 could only spend up to P2,860,146.

In his Statement of Contributions and Expenses (SOCE), Domagoso declared a total campaign expenditure of P2,960,536. He ran under the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA).

Domagoso was elected vice mayor of Manila for his third and final term in 2013. In 2016, he joined the senatorial race but failed to win a seat.

Had the electoral body decided to take the case to court, and the court had found Domagoso guilty of overspending before the 2016 election, he could have faced a one to six-year unsuspended prison sentence, at the end of the day. disqualification from holding public office and deprivation of the right to vote. .

However, given the length of the legal proceedings and the possible filing of motions by either party, it is “very unlikely that any candidate will receive a final conviction” within three years, or before the next election cycle, said election lawyer Izah Katrina Reyes.

Simple calculations would show that Domagoso’s declared expenses exceeded the spending limit by 100,390 pesos.

Campaign finance regulations, such as spending limits, aim to level the playing field for candidates. But poll watchers have long called for an overhaul of an outdated spending cap, as they said it no longer reflected actual spending. (READ: Want better elections in 2025? Poll watchers list 10 tasks for Comelec, lawmakers)

Former Laguna Governor Emilio Ramon “ER” Ejercito, who was elected to a second term in 2013, was disqualified and removed from office for overspending.

The over-budget complaint against Domagoso was filed on May 18, 2017. Five years later, Comelec has yet to decide whether there is probable cause to take the case to court.

Unfortunately, this slow process is “usual”, said attorney Rona Ann Caritos, executive director of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente).

The problem can be traced to Comelec’s legal department which exclusively adjudicates such cases in addition to its other duties, Caritos said. With elections taking place every three years, cases are also likely to pile up, she said.

Commission problem with the administration of administration and arbitration in a department,she said. (The Commission’s problem is that administration and adjudication are all handled by one department.)

Short of asking for a constitutional amendment, Caritos suggested clear “delegation and delineation of duties”, where some lawyers would focus on settling cases while others would work on administrative liaison.

But the polling body’s chief financial officer, according to its director Efraim Bag-id, is unaffected by the backlog of cases in the legal department because he is able to comply with his mandate.

“Even if we really wanted to continue, what can we do? There is a process,” Bag-id, an election lawyer, told PCIJ in an interview.

“At my level, if we find violations, we file [a complaint]…. This is our mandate),” he said.

Former election commissioner Luie Tito Guia said the problem was the delay in resolving cases.

“Administrative cases are faster because they require fewer formalities and are governed by less strict rules,” he told PCIJ. Exceeding campaign expenses is a criminal offence.

‘Unintentional error’

In his counter affidavit, Domagoso said his reported expenses were a “simple and honest oversight” due to discrepancies and unreconciled accounts. He then adjusted his expense report, the new total being P2,855,310.31.

The amended amount is within the campaign spending limits.

But Domagoso’s allegation is “a retraction [of] its SOCE,” which “should be viewed with great reserve and extreme suspicion,” reads the CFO’s responding affidavit.

He also pointed out that the SOCE is a notarized and public document, “made under oath by the defendant, which means that the facts contained in the document are true”.

“He cannot be permitted to make a repudiation of a public document by his subsequent admission of mere imprudence, or his failure to verify the correct reckoning of his expenses. It’s totally a fake excuse after the fact aiming superficially [at exculpating] himself from any criminal liability arising from his actions,” he said.

“Allowing the defendant to claim good faith error and use it as his defense exposes his gross irresponsibility and disregard for campaign finance laws. effect of involuntarily rewarding him [for] his own misdeeds,” he said.

Guia also said good faith is no defense against violations, such as overspending.

“This case is a malum prohibitum, which means it is a crime because it is prohibited by law, not because it is reprehensible,” Guia told PCIJ. “Intent is irrelevant in cases like this.”

Asked for comment, Domagoso told PCIJ he would await the results of the preliminary investigation.

Excessive delay?

Under the electoral body’s bylaws, preliminary inquiries into election violations must be completed within 20 days of receipt of counter affidavits, after which a resolution must be issued within five days.

Comelec’s legal department received the CFO’s responding affidavit on October 29, 2020, according to documents obtained by PCIJ. There has been no resolution on the case since then.

In May 2022, the Supreme Court dismissed an over-budget case after finding Comelec guilty of “disproportionate and oppressive delay”.

The case involved the former mayor of Digos, Davao del Sur, Joseph Peñas, whose chief financial officer, then called the campaign finance unit, found he had overspent in the election of 2010.

The unit requested a preliminary investigation against Peñas in 2014. Comelec did not order a formal charge to be filed until 2018, about four years later.

Peñas asked for a reconsideration, which the polling body took two years to refuse.

“[W]That the preliminary inquiry took an unreasonable amount of time is unfathomable given the simplicity of the matter, the fact that there is only one defendant charged in the complaint, and the evidence at issue here were not bulky at all,” the Supreme Court said.

Given the “undue delay” in the preliminary investigation and the “failure of Comelec to provide sufficient justification”, the SC dismissed the over-budget case against Peñas.

Caritos de Lente urged Comelec to hire more lawyers to help it fill its backlog.

“Cases are piling up. There is a heavy backlog of cases before the legal department, divisions and en banc,” she said.

“There’s a lot of work to do and few employees to do it,” Guia said. – PCIJ/Rappler.com

Republished with permission from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

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