Comelec drops presidential, VP debates, changes format to panel interview

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) will no longer hold presidential and vice-presidential town hall debates but will push for a panel interview with each candidate instead.

“The debates were recently rescheduled to April 30 and May 1, but because of inevitable scheduling conflicts, will instead hold a panel interview for presidential and vice-presidential candidates,” Commissioner George Garcia said.

The Comelec will also conduct an internal probe for possible criminal liability of several poll executives for alleged “disadvantageous deal” with Impact Hub Manila (IHM), the private firm that had organized the previous presidential and vice-presidential debates at Sofitel Philippine Plaza Hotel.

Comelec Commissioner Rey Bulay expressed alarm after the poll body nearly paid Impact Hub P15 million without any legal basis, since the contract to hold the debate with the private firm is supposed to be “free.”

“In fairness to the office of (Comelec) chairman Saidamen Pangarungan, it is on hold,” Commissioner Rey Bulay, who will head the internal investigation, said of the payout in a press conference.

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He said he was unaware of the reason behind Pangarungan’s hold order.

“The Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas, has announced that the concluding event of the PiliPinas Debates 2022 Series will no longer be Vice-Presidential and Presidential Town Hall Debates,” Garcia said earlier.

Comelec “has the final say, including editing,” on the debates. “The panelist will be provided by KBP,” Garcia said.

“In consideration of the inevitable scheduling conflicts as the candidates approach the homestretch of the campaign period, and as advised by the KBP, the Comelec will now be adopting a Single Candidate/Team – Panel Interview format,” he said.

“All (candidates) will be entitled to a 1-hour panel interview,” Garcia added, noting the candidates can attend either virtually or in person.

On the Impact Hub issue, Bulay said the Comelec signed an agreement dated March 7 through then-acting Comelec chair Socorro Inting and IHM founder Celeste Rondario, with IHM official Lawrence Libo-On and poll spokesman James Jimenez as witnesses. It stated the Comelec would not provide any P15.3-million counterpart money to be paid to the organizer.

Bulay asked why Comelec executives allowed Impact Hub to profit from the debates by selling airtime for commercials, and that the poll agency should pay the organizer P15.3 million without any legal basis.

He gave Comelec Executive Director Bartolome Sinocruz Jr., Deputy Executive Director for Operations Teopisto Elnas Jr., Deputy Executive Director for Administration Helen Aguila-Flores, poll spokesman James Jimenez, Comelec Education and Information Director Frances Aguindadao Arabe, and all other directors of the Comelec main office to submit their explanation within 24 hours.

The poll official also demanded an explanation on why the Sofitel’s letter on March 31 that Impact Hub’s checks had repeatedly bounced, even after spokesman Jimenez guaranteed that Impact Hub would be able to pay up.

Jimenez had assured Sofitel that “under the MOA [memorandum of agreement with Comelec], Impact Hub Manila will receive a total budget of P15,300,000 for the staging of the said debates.”

“In full support of the team behind Impact Hub Manila and its founder Celeste Eden Rondario, I would like to offer my vote of confidence that the provider will honor the checks due to Philippine Plaza Holdings Inc. (owner of Sofitel Hotel),” Jimenez wrote the hotel’s general manager on April 1.

At the request of Jimenez along with Arabe, Comelec Chair Pangarungan signed a purchase order dated March 19 to release P15.3 million to the “service provider for expert curated high-level debate organizers.”

Comelec has yet to categorically say whether or not the funds were released.

Bulay warned that Comelec officials would face criminal liability if they released the P15.3 million in supposedly “counterpart” money to Impact Hub.

Previously, the Comelec was forced to postpone by a week its final debates scheduled on April 23 and April 24 after Impact Hub was unable

to pay some P14 million to Sofitel as the venue.

Bulay urged his fellow commissioners to sever ties with the company “considering that Impact Hub’s actions … are tantamount to incurring

criminal liability.”

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