MANILA, Philippines – The Commission on Elections (Comelec) defended before the House of Representatives on Tuesday, January 27, its decision to directly negotiate with Smartmatic for the diagnostics of existing voting machines.
In a hearing of the suffrage and electoral reforms committee, Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr said that the approval of the deal worth at most P300 million was in accordance with the procurement law.
Brillantes denied a claim made by election watchdogs that it was a “midnight deal,” as it was done before the poll chief and commissioners Lucenito Tagle and Elias Yusoph would retire on February 2.
Voting 5-2, the Comelec en banc on December 23, 2014, approved the deal, the first stage of Smartmatic’s extended warranty proposal. The deal requires the software provider to perform diagnostics and some minor repairs on the 82,000 precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines that it supplied in 2013 and which will be reused in 2016.
“Hindi po midnight deal ito. Matagal na po naming pinag-uusapan ito (This is not a midnight deal. We have been discussing this for a long time),” said Brillantes.
He said the Comelec started discussions with Smartmatic and other interested groups as early as February 2014. (READ: Why Smartmatic got deal for PCOS repairs)
The Comelec also had a long debate, said Brillantes, “because we would be giving the P300 million without public bidding.” Its own law department pushed to bid out the project.
Brillantes then clarified that the Comelec has yet to award the contract to Smartmatic, as both camps are still under negotiations to bring the price down.(RELATED: Comelec: Only PCOS diagnostics in Smartmatic deal)
He said that the contract may be signed on or before his retirement, if the poll body could agree on all the terms, including a lower price. After this, the public can scrutinize the contract and bring it to the courts if necessary, said Brillantes.
His explanation prompted Capiz Representative Fredenil Castro, chairman of the House committee, to say that the midnight deal allegation “has been obliterated into smithereens.”
Castro then cautioned the election watchdog Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG), whose representatives attended the hearing, to be careful in making allegations like its claim of a “midnight deal.”
The CenPEG took the Comelec to task for continuing with the P300-million deal despite concerns on the manner it was approved.
CenPEG executive director and Automated Election Systems Watch (AES Watch) co-convenor Evita Jimenez said that the Comelec and Smartmatic held “secret meetings,” and that the approval of Smartmatic’s proposal was “a first step towards favoring one vendor.” (READ: Public bidding best option for PCOS repairs?)
“Unless your group has something that’s substantiated, exercise restraint in coming out with statements that place the Comelec in bad light,” said Castro.
“These irresponsible attacks against the Comelec militates not only the poll body but also the democratic system,” the congressman added.
Inquiries on bidding held off
Meanwhile, questions on ongoing public biddings for additional voting machines for 2016 were held off during the hearing.
The House committee voted in favor of letting the Comelec’s bids and awards committee (BAC) resolve the protests instead of discussing it in a public forum.
Castro said any reply from the BAC while the biddings are underway might constitute a violation of procurement law, and might affect the bid proceedings.
Representatives of Smartmatic, Indra Sistemas, and Scytl – companies that participated in the bidding – were present during the hearing.
The Comelec is conducting public biddings to lease 23,000 more PCOS machines and 410 units of direct recording electronic (DRE) machines that use touchscreen technology. – Rappler.com