It took nearly six years for the Electoral Commission (Comelec) to decide and order the filing of a charge of alleged overspending by a mayoral candidate in the 2010 elections.
The Supreme Court (SC) overturned the Comelec order not on the question of whether or not the candidate had actually overspent in his candidacy, but for an undue delay that infringed the candidate’s constitutional right to a settlement fast in his case.
With the ruling, the SC granted the petition of Joseph Roble Penas who ran for mayor of Digos City in Davao del Sur in 2010 under the Nationalist People’s Coalition Party.
In a ruling written by Associate Justice Amy C. Lazaro Javier, the SC said that under the Constitution, Comelec has the power – through its licensed attorneys – to exclusively conduct preliminary investigations into all electoral offenses and to prosecute them.
He said that, in accordance with Comelec’s regulatory power, the polling body required that a preliminary investigation be closed within 20 days and that a resolution be then issued within five days.
On June 7, 2010, Penas – in accordance with Comelec’s resolution – filed his Statement of Contributions and Expenses (SOCE) which stated that he had spent 600,000 pesos on his election campaign.
In 2010, Digos City had 93,801 registered voters. As Penas belonged to a political party, he was allowed by the Omnibus Electoral Code (OEC) to spend only P3 per voter and therefore he should have spent only P281,403. He won as mayor of Digos City.
In his October 29, 2014 counter-affidavit, he said he spent 112,924.10 pesos printing sample ballots and 245,000 pesos for attorney fees. He pointed out that if the amounts spent on attorney fees and the printing of sample ballots had been deducted from 600,000 pesos, his expenses would only be 241,57401 pesos or within the limit allowed by law. .
On November 6, 2014, Comelec’s campaign finance unit filed a formal complaint against Penas for excessive campaign spending. On February 9, 2015, Penas filed his counter-affidavit and reiterated that the amount spent on printing sample ballots and attorney’s fees should not have been included in his total expenses.
On November 5, 2018, Comelec en banc found probable cause to file a complaint in court for violation of the electoral law against Penas. Comelec ruled that Penas’ request to admit his correction of entries in his SOCE “was merely an afterthought to avoid criminal liability.”
When his request for reconsideration was rejected by Comelec on December 9, 2020, Penas took the case to the SC. He accused Comelec of abuse of power, in particular for having incurred an excessive delay in the resolution of the complaint against him.
After resolving some technical issues in Penas’ motion and citing previous rulings, the SC said:
“Here, the Court finds that Comelec acted with a serious abuse of power amounting to a lack or excess of jurisdiction when it recommended the filing of information (criminal indictment) against the applicant despite the disproportionate and oppressive delay which accompanied the conduct of the preliminary investigation.
“Comelec failed to meet its own prescribed deadline to resolve the cases when it finally recommended the filing of an information against the petitioner on December 9, 2020, more than six (6) years from the filing of the complaint. official complaint on November 12, 2014. The Comelec is constitutionally committed to acting expeditiously in the cases submitted to it.
“As noted, the complaint against Petitioner (Penas) was filed on November 12, 2014. Subsequently, Petitioner filed his counter affidavit on February 9, 2015. By Resolution No. 18-0665 dated November 5, 2018, or about four (4) years after the filing of the complaint, Comelec ordered the filing of information against the petitioner.The petitioner requested a reconsideration and this time it took another two (2) years for the Comelec to issue Resolution No. 220-00121-33 dated December 9, 2020 to dismiss the petition. Undoubtedly, COMELEC has exceeded the prescribed time limit for conducting a preliminary investigation.
“Given Comelec’s failure to meet its own deadline for resolving the applicant’s file, the burden of justifying the delay is transferred to it. Instead of proving compliance with its own prescribed procedure, Comelec simply attempted to justify the delay by citing the two (2) general elections it had to administer during the time of the investigation, namely the 2016 NLEs and 2019 (national and local elections).
“But that hardly justifies the delay taken by Comelec in concluding the preliminary investigation. On the contrary, a prolonged investigation should have been avoided at all costs precisely because of the impending elections at that time.
“An adverse finding at a preliminary inquiry would result in a criminal charge for an election offence. If convicted, the petitioner would have been disqualified from running for public office let alone running for mayor of Digos City. Certainly, the fact that the petitioner was an outgoing elected official who was to stand for re-election, or even a higher position during the NLEs of 2016 and 2019, should have prompted Comelec to conclude its investigation as quickly as possible. Otherwise, those who intended to vote for the petitioner could have lost their vote for a disqualified candidate.
“The Petitioner’s case did not at all involve complex or complicated issues that require extensive records or evidence. The only issue to be resolved was whether the Petitioner exceeded the prescribed campaign spending limit.
“To determine if there had indeed been an excess, a simple mathematical equation suffices: multiply the number of registered voters in Digos City by three pesos (P3.00). The product must then be compared to the amount actually spent by the applicant. If the amount spent was greater than the proceeds, then there is probable cause to charge the petitioner with excessive election expenses, subject to any valid defenses the petitioner may raise in his counter-affidavit.
“Indeed, why the preliminary investigation took an unreasonable period of time is clearly incomprehensible given the simplicity of the matter, the fact that there is only one defendant charged in the complaint and that the evidence involved here were not bulky at all.
“In total, given the disproportionate delay of approximately six (6) years in the conduct of the preliminary investigation and the total absence of sufficient justification on the part of Comelec, Comelec’s decisions must be annulled and the criminal action brought against the petitioner, if any. , attenuated and dismissed. On this point, we find it unnecessary to discuss further the other issues raised here.
“THEREFORE, the motion is GRANTED. Resolution No. 18-0665 dated November 5, 2018 and Resolution No. 20-00121-33 dated December 9, 2020 are VOID for being rendered with a serious abuse of power amounting to a lack or excess of jurisdiction.
“The formal complaint against the Petitioner, Joseph Roble Penas, for alleged violation of Section 100 in relation to OEC Section 262, as amended by RA 7I66, for excessive election expenses is DISMISSED. THEREFORE ORDERED.
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