Bautista-Smartmatic rap ‘an eye-opener’–Comelec
Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chair George Garcia on Friday said it was “premature” to bar poll technology company Smartmatic from the bidding to provide the automated elections system (AES) in the 2025 polls amid allegations that the company bribed one of his predecessors.
Garcia was referring to reports that former Comelec Chair Andres Bautista had been charged with money laundering and conspiracy by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in connection with the bribe he allegedly received from a poll automation company, which was not identified, in the 2016 national elections.
Garcia said the reports were “an eye-opener.”
“We would closely monitor this development, most especially the nature and weight of evidence to be presented in court,” he added. “But at this point, the presumption of innocence stands.”
The poll technology company wasn’t named in the news story first reported locally by Rappler on Thursday based on a report on Wednesday by MLex, an independent news service focused on identifying regulatory risks for business.
Citing the MLex report, Rappler said the Sept. 19 criminal complaint filed by the US DHS was in connection with the alleged bribe received by Bautista from the election system provider that bagged the $199-million contract for the 2016 polls.
The DHS investigations unit initiated a probe after Bautista’s estranged wife, Patricia Paz Bautista, tipped off the National Bureau of Investigation about her husband’s supposed ill-gotten wealth.
The report noted that the unnamed company’s executives “laundered money through US accounts” and made use of various overseas bank accounts of its Taiwan-based vendor “to operationalize the bribery scheme.”
The UK-based Smartmatic was the lone poll technology partner of the Comelec since the national elections in the Philippines became fully automated in 2010.
Smartmatic on Friday denied the bribery allegation, saying: “Winning a bid in the Philippines is never solely one individual’s preference or decision.”
It vowed to cooperate in the investigation, noting that being dragged into the case had nothing to do with election security or integrity.
“In every bidding process and procurement procedure, Smartmatic has adhered to the Philippine procurement law and the strict controls that the (Comelec) imposes,” it said in a statement.
In a post on X (formerly Twitter) on Friday, Bautista belied allegations of bribery, saying he was “surprised to learn” about the criminal case against him as the DHS never reached out to him.
“But let me be very clear. I did not ask for nor receive any bribe money from Smartmatic or any other entity,” he said.
At proper forum
“Be that as it may, I am ready to respond to the alleged charges at the proper forum and time,” Bautista said, adding that the 2016 polls were regarded “as the best managed in our electoral history.”
Bautista headed the Presidential Commission on Good Government prior to his appointment as Comelec chief.
He led the poll body for two years before he was impeached by the House of Representatives on charges of amassing alleged ill-gotten wealth and receiving “referral fees” from Smartmatic. But he stepped down in October 2017, “after much prayer and discernment,” before he was to be tried by the Senate.
Bautista repeatedly denied his wife’s allegations that he had ill-gotten wealth amounting to nearly P1 billion.
Smartmatic is among the four companies that had already expressed interest in the procurement for a new computerized balloting system, the Comelec said earlier this week.
The poll body has started the public bidding process for a new automated elections system and vote-counting machines (VCMs), releasing the terms of reference in July.
Both the Comelec and Smartmatic have come under fire from a group of information technology experts who claimed that the May 2022 elections had been rigged, citing, among others, the creation of an illegal private network through which election returns passed prior to reaching the transparency server.
Rio, Lagman, Odoño
In June, former Department of Information and Communications Technology Secretary Eliseo Rio Jr., former Comelec Chair Gus Lagman, former Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines president Franklin Ysaac and retired Col. Leonardo Odoño filed a petition questioning the qualifications of Smartmatic in participating as AES provider in future elections.
In a supplemental motion to their petition filed on Sept. 11, the group said the company should be disqualified for violating its 2021 contract with the Comelec when its representatives allegedly met with then future first lady Liza Araneta Marcos prior to the May 2022 polls.
The contract stated that the company was prohibited from making any “direct or indirect” contact with any political party or candidate.
Asked to comment on this petition, Garcia told the Inquirer that it was still pending “for consideration by the en banc.”
The first lady and Smartmatic have not commented on this petition’s allegations.
Smartmatic had sued Fox Corp., which owns Fox News Network LLC, and several individuals for allegedly falsely accusing the company of helping to rig the US presidential election in favor of Joe Biden.
It is seeking more than $2.7 billion in damages and asked the defendants to retract their false statements.