Government News Analysis

Bautista’s Teflon test

The fires around the embattled chairman of the Philippines’ Commission on Elections (COMELEC), Andres Bautista (photo), are growing in intensity

The fires around the embattled chairman of the Philippines’ Commission on Elections (COMELEC), Andres Bautista (photo), are growing in intensity. Now, the head of the government body sworn to protect the honesty and fairness of Philippine elections, has been set adrift by all six of his commissioners. On Wednesday they fanned the flames of this escalating controversy by unanimously asking their chairman to relinquish his duties. Their boss, they said, “can no longer effectively lead the commission”. They expressed concern for his situation, but the bottom line was he should go.

And that was literally the bottom line of the statement they issued to the press. It said: “With all due respect, it is our consensus that Chair Bautista can no longer lead the Commission”.

Comelec Statement unanimously asking their chairman, Andy Bautista, to relinquish his duties

Bautista has responded by saying he is now “praying over” what he should do. Whatever the source of his decision might be, right now it looks like he’ll choose to step down. Given what’s transpired so far and what lies immediately ahead, it seems inconceivable that he can continue in his capacity as the headman of COMELEC.

The storms circling Bautista – the high-profile public servant allegedly turned billionaire – have started to collide. He’s concurrently the subject of an impeachment complaint, already endorsed by three legislators, as well as probes by the Department of Justice, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) – of which he’s a former chairman – the Bureau of Inland Revenue, and the Senate Finance Committee. A proposed investigation by the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee was preempted by the filing in the House of Representatives of the impeachment complaint.

That complaint will investigate Bautista’s alleged unexplained wealth along with possible violations of the Constitution for alleged false declarations on his 2016 Statement of Assets Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN). Accurate SALN filings are an annual requirement for government officials under Philippine law.

With all that, plus the charges Bautista’s filed against his estranged wife, Patricia “Tish” Bautista – charges including, grave coercion, qualified theft, robbery and extortion – the commissioners feel their boss has got enough on his plate right now.

And they seem to be right. On Wednesday, their chairman failed to attend the House Committee on Appropriations – a hearing scheduled to review COMELEC’s proposed 2018 PHP16.15 billion budget. He’d asked someone to stand in for him, but failed to inform the House panel.

Left holding the can for Bautista’s absence, commissioner Arthur Lim, said this: “What we can do today is sincerely apologise to Congress, to the Committee on Appropriations and its members, and we respectfully request that we be accorded a chance to present the budget, and we will exert utmost effort to make sure that the chairman will honor, not only the committee but the entire Congress, and make sure the Commission budget will be approved. We really beg your kind indulgence”.

This building scandal which has thrown the spotlight once again on alleged massive public corruption at the pinnacle of government in the Philippines emerged through documents acquired by Patricia Bautista from the family’s safe at the couple’s home.

But Patricia didn’t just open a safe, she opened a Pandora’s Box. Apart from revealing PHP1.2 billion-worth of cash and assets allegedly directly linked to her husband; she uncovered a trail of emails and other documents that could put the integrity of last year’s national elections in serious doubt.

Among her discoveries was a letter to Philippine law firm, DivinaLaw. It came from the general manager of Smartmatic – the Venezuelan-owned technology-solutions provider which supplied COMELEC with 92,509 vote-counting machines for the 2016 election. In it, Smartmatic’s GM alludes to proposed amendments to the Philippines Omnibus Election Code. The question arising from that is what was the relationship between Smartmatic, DivinaLaw and Andres Bautista? Bautista has admitted to receiving “referral fees” from DivinaLaw though denies they had anything to do with his capacity as chairman of COMELEC.

And somewhere in all that, the fallout from what Andres Bautista’s wife mined from the family home could potentially author the collapse of the Liberal Party which was in power from 2010 to 2016. It could see a number of government officials from that period being investigated and possibly charged with electoral-fraud offences. That’s a long way off, but it would be a fool right now who would deny the possibility.

Certainly, that’s part of the complexion of the current speculation – not least in the world of social media. And the urging by Liberal Party members to not link the ongoing investigations into Bautista’s apparent ‘unexplained wealth’ to last year’s election results, has only added fuel to that particular fire. After all, the public asks, wouldn’t the Liberal Party want to show conclusively that the outcome of that election – which gave their party a vice president, Leni Robredo – was honest and fair and dispel all doubt? Why would they not want that brought out into the open and proved once and for all?

Certainly, the Liberal Party was known to have been favoured in that election. In June last year, COMELEC commissioner, Robert Lim, resigned as chairman of the Campaign Finance Office, following differences over an en banc decision to extent the Liberal Party’s deadline for filing its Statements of Contributions and Expenditures by three weeks.

Under the law, those documents should have been filed within 30 days of the election; for the Liberal Party that was pushed out to 52 days. The fact is, had the original deadline been upheld, five senators, 115 House members and 40 governors would not have been able to take office.

Andres Bautista’s relationship with his commissioners has rarely run smoothly – particularly concerning matters relating to last year’s election, and Wednesday’s press release wasn’t the first the commissioners had made their chairman the subject of.

In July last year, all six of them – Robert Lim, Rowena Guanzon, Arthur Lim, Luie Tito Guia, Al Parreño, and Sheriff Aba – signed a memo accusing their chairman of a “failure of leadership”. In it, among other “grave concerns”, they claimed he’d made unilateral decisions and they questioned his autocratic style.

Elsewhere the commissioners had been critical of Bautista for virtually ignoring or playing down the seriousness of the massive hacking of the COMELEC website in January 2016. Dubbed COMELEAK, this was the biggest data breach of a public institution in history, anywhere. It resulted in the personal information of some 55 million registered voters being released on the Internet, putting those voters at risk of identity theft.

In January, the National Privacy Commission (NPC), an attached agency of the Department of Information and Communications Technology charged with implementing the provisions of the 2012 Data Privacy Act, recommended that criminal charges be brought against Andres Bautista and COMELEC. According to NPC Deputy Commissioner, Ivy Patdu, there was “sufficient evidence for prosecution”.

The NPC’s report criticised Bautista for his “lack of appreciation” of the need for sound cyber security. Patdu described the episode as “a failure of duty required by law. It’s tantamount to negligence,” she said.

His handling of the tweak in the script of a transparency server used in the May 2016 elections – something which Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos claims cost him the vice presidency – was also criticised by his commissioners. In June, the Justice Department indicted several Smartmatic and COMELEC staff for the script change, charging them with illegal access, data interference and system interference – offences under the Cybercrime Prevention Act.

And yet with all that, Andres Bautista has managed, up until now, to remain unscathed by the flames of controversy. He’s never been more than faintly singed.

But this time it’s different. There’s enough smoke here to shroud a plague of fires. And at the centre of all them all is Andre Bautista whose Teflon-coating is now being severely tested. Furthermore, it’s not being helped by family and supporters who’ve tried to douse the flames with gasoline by their attempts to switch the blame to his wife and make her the villain of this saga.

But it’s hard to see how blame can be deflected to her. Andres Bautista is a public servant, his wife is not. He’s alleged to have committed grave crimes which threaten to bring his office into disrepute; she has not. He’s allegedly amassed financial assets incommensurate with his salary as a government official; she has not. He’s answerable to the people of the Philippines who paid his salary; she is not.

Official support for Bautista is thin and getting thinner. There was an initial flurry of backing from Liberal Party figures in Congress but that never gained any critical mass. It was little more than the expected pleas for fellow members not to link Tish Bautista’s revelations to the 2016 election over which her husband presided.

There was support from Martin and Gavin Bautista who seemed to believe they could somehow clear their brother by taking their case to the mainstream and social media courts – a ploy that betrayed a total misreading of the public mood.

Their irrational and emotional defence of their brother; claiming his critics were all in the pay of Bongbong Marcos and his sister, Imee – traditional targets of the Liberal establishment – were seen as the hollow arguments they are. And the fact is, even if there were any truth in that daydream, it doesn’t make an iota of difference to their brother’s predicament.

Bongbong and Imee Marcos are not under investigation by the NBI, the PCGG etc; they’ve not just been made the subject of an endorsed impeachment complaint by Congress. Mr and Mrs Bautista’s troubled marriage is not the issue in any of this either. Nor is the emotional health of their children. The legal issues here concern the COMELEC chairman alone.

The question now is this: is Andres Bautista sufficiently fireproof to survive a conflagration as numerous fires combine to consume him? For with the mountain of cases against him; the shed-load of documentation now in the hands of investigators; the calls for him to answer all charges from right across social media, he would need to be a firewalker of unparalleled skill.

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