Debate contractor makes ‘final demand’ to Comelec: Pay P15-million debt

Dwight de Leon

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Debate contractor makes ‘final demand’ to Comelec: Pay P15-million debt

FACE-OFF. The stage for the presidential debate at Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila in Pasay City on March 19, 2022.

Photo by Angie de SIlva/Rappler

The chaotic mounting of the debates in 2022 – which involved bounced checks by the Comelec's production partner issued to a five-star hotel – ultimately led to the cancellation of the events, and cost James Jimenez his spokesman post

MANILA, Philippines – The ghost of the botched 2022 election debate series mounted by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) continues to haunt the poll body one year later, after its production partner demanded that the commission pay its multimillion-peso debt.

Rappler obtained a copy of the letter from Impact Hub Manila addressed to Comelec spokesman Rex Laudiangco, informing the poll body that it has yet to settle its outstanding balance of P15.3 million.

“Since it was the Comelec that decided to unilaterally reschedule and eventually cancel the debates, the contract entered into between our client and the Comelec stands,” said the letter from Impact Hub Manila, represented by its lawyer Karla Frias.

“Despite our repeated demands, both verbally and via email, the claims have remained unpaid. As such, please consider this as the final demand to coordinate and set a meeting with us to discuss the settlement of the outstanding balance,” it added.

The private firm warned that it would “avail of legal remedies under the law to recover the debt and to protect the company’s interests.”

Comelec Chairman George Garcia confirmed to Rappler that the poll body had received the letter on Friday, May 12.

“It’s good that it’s them who reminded us of this issue and brought this back to our collective memory. Public funds were involved and it is our sworn duty to spend it only pursuant to established rules, regulations, and auditing practices,” Garcia later said in a Viber group with reporters.

“We are determining whether everything was in order or whether something somewhere along the way, serious issues of questionable nature did set in. We cannot be rushed to settle, more so that there are criminal, civil, and administrative liabilities being investigated,” he added.

So what happened again last year?

The Comelec, in an embarrassing move, was left with no choice but to cancel its last two debates for presidential and vice presidential candidates in April 2022, in the wake of a debt fiasco involving its former production partner.

That was after debate venue Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila threatened to pull out of the event due to Impact Hub Manila’s P14-million debt.

An April 20 demand letter last year said that checks signed by Impact Hub Manila chief executive officer Ces Rondario were “dishonored” by banks “for being drawn against insufficient funds.”

A fiasco that cost a spokesman his post

The Comelec launched a probe, which ultimately resulted in the relief of its longtime spokesman James Jimenez. He never returned to that post and availed of early retirement in September 2022.

Comelec Commissioner Rey Bulay, who led the inquiry, had said in a leaked memo that the poll body’s transaction with its contractor “appears to be manifestly and grossly disadvantageous to the government.”

It was Jimenez whom Sofitel first notified about the payment woes, in a March 31 letter last year that reported two bounced checks signed by Impact Hub Manila’s 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.

Jimenez wrote to the five-star hotel, giving them his “vote of confidence” that the private company would honor its payment commitments despite the bounced checks.

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Bulay, however, questioned why Jimenez, not a member of the en banc, was “authorized to make such a guarantee” on behalf of the Comelec.

The Comelec’s deal with Impact Hub Manila raised numerous red flags, such as why the poll body preferred a seven-year-old startup over decades-old media companies to mount presidential and vice presidential debates. –

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Dwight de Leon

Dwight de Leon is a multimedia reporter who covers President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the Malacañang, and the Commission on Elections for Rappler.