Comelec spokes, deputy face relief over debate fiasco

The head of the Task Force PiliPinas Debates 2022 Fiasco of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has recommended the temporary relief of Comelec Spokesperson Director James Jimenez, and Education and Information Department (EID) Director Frances Arabe, from their duties in dealing with the media as the investigation on the foiled presidential and vice-presidential debates continue.

Comelec Commissioner Rey Bulay

Comelec Commissioner Rey Bulay, in a statement released Friday, said, in the interest of the service, he recommended “Directors James Jimenez and Frances Arabe be temporarily relieved from any functions involving media relations and exposure.”

At the same time, the poll body commissioner recommended that Comelec designate replacements for the two officials.

“To continue the duties of Directors Jimenez and Arabe in the Education and Information Department (EID), it was recommended that temporary replacements be designated,” he said.

Bulay added that Jimenez and Arabe might still retain their other internal posts.

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“To prevent disruption in the essential election operations, the elections being a few days away, Directors Jimenez and Arabe were recommended to continue other functions under the supervision of their committee heads,” he said.

“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 earlier this week.

The Comelec will also conduct an internal probe for possible criminalliability 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 Director James Jimenez

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.”

Both officials were among those involved in the partnership with Impact Hub Manila in producing the PiliPinas Debates 2022.

Bulay said the task force found reasonable cause to merit a fact-finding and administrative disciplinary investigation on the matter.

He added that no other information would be released while the investigation would be ongoing.

“(We) cannot release information on the issue to avoid a trial by publicity, to preserve the dignity of the procedures; and considering that government officials enjoy the presumption of regularity in the performance of official duties,” the poll body Commissioner said.

Aside from Bulay, the task force is composed of the Executive Director, Director of the Finance Services Department, Director of the Law Department, and Director of the Personnel Department.

The investigation stemmed from the financial woes faced by the private company with Sofitel Hotel that led to the cancellation of the holding of the last presidential and vice-presidential debates.

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.

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.”

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.

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