Inside the P14-M debate fiasco: Comelec probes longtime spokesman James Jimenez

Dwight de Leon
Inside the P14-M debate fiasco: Comelec probes longtime spokesman James Jimenez

FACE OF COMELEC. Election spokesman James Jimenez answers media questions before the start of the Comelec vice-presidential debate in Pasay City on March 20, 2022.

Angie de Silva/Rappler

Why did the Comelec prefer Impact Hub, a seven-year-old start-up, over decades-old media companies to mount presidential and vice presidential debates? Without bidding documents available to the public, how did Impact Hub bag the coveted project?

MANILA, Philippines – The Commission on Elections (Comelec) is investigating one of its own, no less than its longtime spokesman James Jimenez, over a controversial election debate partnership that resulted in a P14-million debt to a five-star hotel.

Comelec Commissioner Rey Bulay, former chief city prosecutor of Manila, said in a leaked memo that the poll body’s transaction with its contractor “appears to be manifestly and grossly disadvantageous to the government.” Commissioner George Garcia, a veteran election lawyer, described the debate mess as “embarrassing.”

Bulay on Friday, April 29, said he had recommended the temporary relief of Jimenez and his deputy, Frances Arabe, “from any functions involving media relations and exposure.”

Jimenez has held the post of Comelec spokesman for 15 years, outlasting five Comelec chairmen from Benjamin Abalos Sr. to Sheriff Abas.

The Comelec’s deal with its debate partner, Impact Hub Manila, raised various questions that landed at the footsteps of the Comelec’s Education and Information Department (EID), which Jimenez heads.

Why did the Comelec prefer Impact Hub, a seven-year-old start-up, over decades-old media companies to mount presidential and vice presidential debates? In the 2016 elections, broadcast networks took turns in mounting debates for free. Why didn’t the Comelec partner with the networks again?

Without bidding documents available to the public, how did Impact Hub bag the coveted project?

New kid on the block

Founded by entrepreneur Ces Rondario in 2015, Impact Hub Manila first got involved in Comelec dealings in 2020, when it became the poll body’s partner in its voter registration campaign.

According to its website, Impact Hub Manila was established by Rondario as an “incubation hub focused on purpose-driven entrepreneurs.” She said the company’s foray into elections only started after the 2019 polls, when she realized 70% of her team members were not registered voters.

Jimenez cited the success of Impact Hub Manila’s “Vote Pilipinas” voter registration campaign as the reason why the poll body’s partnership with the private firm expanded to voter information campaign in 2022, and the mounting of the debates.

Impact Hub Manila delivered, at first.

Although it suffered hiccups, such as technical problems and expired food stubs for media, Impact Hub Manila successfully mounted two presidential debates and one vice presidential debate. The start-up even got topnotch journalists to moderate: Luchi Cruz-Valdes and Ces Oreña-Drilon for the presidential debates on March 19 and April 3, respectively, and Ruth Cabal for the vice presidential debate on March 20.

A final set of presidential and vice presidential debates was supposed to take place on April 23 and 24. But the debate venue, Sofitel, threatened to back out after Impact Hub Manila allegedly issued bouncing checks to settle its debts, which later totaled nearly P14.1 million. The Comelec first postponed the debates to April 30 and May 1, then later canceled them altogether.

It was Jimenez whom the Sofitel first notified about the payment woes, in a March 31 letter that reported two bounced checks signed by Impact Hub Manila chief executive officer Rondario.

Jimenez’s office, after all, was the one that vouched for Impact Hub Manila when Sofitel entered into an agreement with the private firm on March 10, according to the five-star hotel’s lawyers. The payment structure was four installments from March 16 to April 20 for a total of P20.595 million.

In Jimenez’s reply letter to Sofitel on April 1, he gave his “vote of confidence” that the private company would honor its payment commitments despite the bounced checks.

How could Jimenez make such a guarantee? In the letter, he told Sofitel that the Comelec would be the “source of funding” for the remaining events through the P15.3 million purchase request and notice of award for Impact Hub Manila.

Bulay, in his preliminary investigation, however, was looking into whether Jimenez, not a member of the en banc, was “authorized to make such a guarantee” on behalf of the Comelec.

“Is Director Jimenez privy to the financial status of Impact Hub Manila to make such a guarantee?” Bulay asked.

Inside the P14-M debate fiasco: Comelec probes longtime spokesman James Jimenez
Was there a law violated?

After Rappler and other media organizations broke the story on the debate debt fiasco on April 21, commissioners Garcia and Bulay gave assurances on April 22 that no Comelec money was disbursed in the conduct of the debates. Chairman Saidamen Pangarungan also made the same assertion to Rappler through his media officer on April 23.

Bulay went one step further and said it was prohibited under the law, citing the Fair Election Act and its implementing rules, Comelec Resolution No. 10730.

Two election lawyers Rappler spoke to, Ona Caritos and Emil Marañon III, however, said nothing in the law bars the Comelec from spending its own money to hold debates. Marañon even argued that the Comelec has fiscal autonomy.

Nonetheless, why was the planned P15.3 million fund release to Impact Hub Manila not cleared with the seven-member Comelec en banc? Garcia and Bulay both made manifestations the move was not discussed with the commission’s policy-making body.

Bulay also cited the Comelec’s March 7 memorandum of agreement with Impact Hub Manila, which said that the latter “shall organize and produce the PiliPinas Debates 2022, including all necessary logistical and administrative requirements, free of charge of professional services, exclusive of out-of-the-pocket expenses.”

On the notice of award mentioned by Jimenez, Rappler asked Pangarungan whether it was indeed issued to Impact Hub Manila, but he sidestepped the question.

“The Comelec MOA with Impact Hub was signed by Commissioner Socorro Inting before I assumed office on March 8, 2022,” he said on April 24. Inting said through her legal officer on April 25 that she too did not sign a notice of award.

This notice of award was not among the attachments in Bulay’s 34-page memo on April 22, but he said he was looking for “the contract for this ‘counterpart money’ and ‘P15 million’ cover-up money.”

“Why was this not presented to the en banc by the bids and awards committee (BAC) who should have handled the same?” Bulay’s memorandum read. “[I would like to know] whether there is any intention or internal arrangement to set up the Chairman and commissioners for liability, especially for graft and corruption.”

The purchase request worth P15.3 million, meanwhile, had the signatures of Jimenez, his fellow EID director Arabe, and Pangarungan.

Bulay said on April 25 that there existed an amended procurement plan for 2022, which included spending for the debates, but Bulay claimed that was just a “wishlist.”

“If we approve that, you still cannot use it as basis for expenditure. Each item has to be in accordance with Republic Act. No. 9184,” he insisted, referring to the Government Procurement Reform Act.

Procurement process

If there was a notice of award, as mentioned by Jimenez in his letter to Sofitel, it would mean that there was a government procurement process that took place.

The revised implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of RA 9184 states that, as a general rule, procuring entities such as the Comelec shall adopt a competitive bidding process, “except in highly exceptional cases,” in which alternative methods can be used.

But the same law says this should have prior approval by the head of procuring entity, which is the Comelec chairperson in this case. The BAC must also justify the change in the procurement method through a resolution.

There are many types of alternative procurement methods, but it is clear that the contractor’s proven capability in relation to the requirements of the deal must be given premium consideration.

If the supposed notice of award by the Comelec to Impact Hub Manila falls under negotiated procurement, the contractor must be “technically, legally, and financially capable.” The end-user, which is the Comelec, must have also conducted a market study to justify this mode of procurement.

This bounces back to Impact Hub Manila, which is hounded by the question of whether it was financially capable in the first place to mount an event of that scale, given that multiple of its checks to Sofitel had bounced.

Severing ties with Impact Hub

Impact Hub Manila broke its silence on April 23, admitting it “encountered some misunderstandings” with Sofitel, but said it would seek to settle the issue privately.

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Bulay, meanwhile, suggested severing ties with Impact Hub Manila.

In his investigation, Bulay demanded a formal explanation from Jimenez, Arabe, and other several high-ranking officials.

Based on Bulay’s report on April 25, Jimenez, as well as 19 other offices, such as the BAC, the procurement management division, the law department, and the offices of Executive Director Bartolome Sinocruz Jr. and Deputy Executive Director for Administration Helen Aguila-Flores complied with Bulay’s directive. Arabe later said she too submitted a written explanation to Bulay.

On April 29, following the news that Bulay ordered the temporary relief of Jimenez and Arabe from their media coordination duties, Arabe asserted: “As far as I can determine, all my actions have been aboveboard concerning the staging of presidential debates. I respect the process and have faith in the fairness of the commission en banc.”

Jimenez, in a April 22 statement after Bulay’s memo leaked, said: “Due deference to the Honorable Commissioner dictates that any response I make should be made to him, first and foremost. For this reason, I would refrain from any further comments on the matter for now.”

Garcia also said on April 25 that it was too premature to judge Jimenez at this point.

“The presumption of innocence still stands until the completion of the entire process,” Garcia said.

Here is a timeline of the issue:

Not the first for Jimenez

This is not the first time Jimenez made a purchase request that was later hounded by controversy.

The investigative news magazine Newsbreak, which is now part of Rappler, reported in 2007 that, 12 days before the May 14 polls of that year, Jimenez submitted a purchase request to then-chairman Benjamin Abalos for the printing of voter education flyers. It was approved within the same day because it was classified as an “emergency purchase.”

The total project cost was P7.84 million, and within the same day, a printing company had been awarded the contract, as the bids and awards committee did away with the usual government guidelines.

Jimenez supposedly ended up ordering part-time employees to dispose of the materials in the wee hours of election day, “to avoid being blamed for the failure to distribute the materials,” according to the same Newsbreak report in 2007, citing sources within the EID.

“Not knowing what to do, some unloaded the materials in secluded areas. The more creative dumped the boxes of flyers down the Pasig River,” wrote the late Newsbreak investigative reporter Aries Rufo.

“When we told Jimenez about the dumping,” Rufo recalled, “he expressed shock. ‘Oh, my God! Did they really do that?’”

Why didn’t Comelec partner with media?

The debate fiasco of 2022 made observers raise the question of why the Comelec didn’t just adopt the same arrangements as in 2016, when it tapped media organizations to mount the debates.

Former Comelec chairman Andres Bautista said he was surprised upon reading the news that the poll body negotiated with a production company instead, when, during his time, news groups were so willing to shoulder the cost of the debates.

“We were very conscious of the budgetary constraints of the Comelec, and we partnered with all the big media groups in the Philippines,” said Bautista, the brains behind the PiliPinas Debates 2016, the first hosted by the Comelec since 1992.

“It was important for me at the time, when I conceived this, it should be at no expense to the government, but full benefit to the Filipino people,” he added.

Bautista said he also saw the advantage in forging partnerships with media firms.

“That time, I fought for ABS-CBN, GMA, and CNN, I partnered them with print media. I wanted them to really innovate and come up with the best ideas,” he recalled.

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The Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), in an April 7 letter to Chairman Pangarungan, manifested that it could have been tapped by the Comelec instead.

“It came as a surprise to us that the KBP, that has as its members about 95% of broadcast media outlets nationwide with over 1,000 radio and television stations, was not invited to participate in organizing the current presidential debates,” it said.

Due to Impact Hub Manila’s issues, the Comelec, at the last minute, asked the help of the KBP, which agreed to shoulder the expenses of the final debates.

On April 25, however, the Comelec dropped the debate format due to “inevitable scheduling conflicts” among candidates and said the poll body and KBP would conduct a series of taped interviews instead with the presidential and vice presidential aspirants.

Asked in a television interview whether Bulay believes there was lack of wisdom or something questionable about the Comelec’s debate deal with Impact Hub Manila, the poll official answered in the affirmative.

“It was done in the past with not so much ruckus and everything. It was done for free as well. One of my questions really is why we did not follow the same format as before,” Bulay told ANC’s Headstart on April 26.

Bautista, who once took the helm of the Comelec, agreed the debate debt brouhaha may just cast doubt on the integrity of the elections. “For an election to be successful, it has to be perceived as fair,” he said. –

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Dwight de Leon

Dwight de Leon is a multimedia reporter who covers the House of Representatives and the Commission on Elections for Rappler. Previously, he wrote stories on local government units.