SC junks Tolentino plea for return of P3-M poll protest payments

MANILA – The Supreme Court (SC) has affirmed the decision of the Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET) and the Commission on Elections (Comelec) against the return of PHP3.3 million paid by Senator Francis Tolentino in connection with his 2016 election protest against Senator Leila de Lima, challenging the results of that year’s elections.

In its 21-page decision written by Associate Justice Jhosep Y. Lopez and made public online on July 25, the tribunal affirmed the Feb. 21, 2019 resolution of the SET denying Tolentino’s motion for the return of the payments he made.

The SET had ordered Tolentino to pay the sum that was used by the Comelec to cover the cost of retaining 106 vote-counting machines (VCMs) and six laptops and their SD cards, which were among the 92,509 machines leased with an option to purchase by Comelec from Smartmatic and which were identified by Tolentino in his election protest.

Under the Automated Election System (AES) contract between Comelec and Smartmatic, the retained machines in the case of election protests beyond December 2016 shall be paid for by Comelec and considered sold to the election body who then may require those who lodge a protest to shoulder the cost of the retention.

The sum paid by Tolentino for the retention of the election machines is for six laptops at PHP30,000 each and 106 VCMs at PHP20,770 each.

In 2018, Tolentino sought the return of the payments he made, which he said should be returned because despite paying the purchase price of the election machines and equipment, he never enjoyed ownership rights of these machines, which remained in the custody of the Comelec. He said he could not even access them without permission from the poll body.

Meanwhile, the Comelec said the payments made by Tolentino were for the retention of the election paraphernalia in relation to his election protest and not for the payment of the election paraphernalia itself and that if not for the election protest, these machines would have been returned to Smartmatic.

In its ruling, the SC said “it is decisively clear that no grave abuse of discretion” was committed by the SET, adding that the body could not be faulted for relying on the provisions of the Comelec’s agreement with Smartmatic.

It added that Tolentino “loses sight of the fact that unless the AES contract is declared void or unconstitutional in a proper proceeding, the presumption tilts in favor of its validity.”

Tolentino placed 13th in the 2016 elections where he initially ran as a candidate in the Daang Matuwid Koalisyon before opting to be an independent.

He subsequently ran again and secured ninth place in the 2019 elections under the Hugpong ng Pagbabago coalition and will serve as senator until 2025. (PNA)

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