POSTSCRIPT / October 17, 2006 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Comelec: SC itself gave go signal for ACMs!

B.F., GO! GO!: We commend chairman Bayani Fernando of the Metro Manila Development Authority for his political will in clearing EDSA of advertising billboards that had made that major artery ugly and dangerous.

The removal of the offending billboards is still ongoing, but even at this point the big refreshing changes are already there for everybody to see and feel.

The traffic buildup in areas where billboards are being dismantled, worsened by the repaving of damaged portions of EDSA, is just a temporary inconvenience.

Another refreshing sight is that of sections cleared of the fuchsia-colored wire fences that get in the way and cause accidents. Next thing MMDA should do is paint back those missing lanes on the road.

MMDA general manager Robert Nacienceno, meanwhile, said they would clear and rehabilitate the sidewalks along the 22-kilometer avenue stretching between Caloocan and Pasay.

The full restoration of sidewalks for pedestrians originated in Marikina (see the place for yourself) when chairman Fernando was the mayor. He has since applied many of his progressive ideas in his managing of MMDA affairs.

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GREEN LIGHT: What? The Supreme Court itself gave the Commission on Elections the go signal to proceed with the illegal purchase of substandard automated counting machines, accept full delivery and make payments amounting to almost P1 billion?

That amazing claim came from the Comelec education and information director in a letter to me reacting to my Oct. 15 Postscript  titled “There’s still a way out for erring Ombudsman.”

Like many other commentators and taxpayers following the case, I noted in my column the “undue haste” (a term borrowed from the Supreme Court decision) with which the Comelec and its supplier completed delivery and payment despite the legal “Milenyo” swirling around the transaction.

Such lightning speed was quite unusual for a government agency, especially because of the controversial nature of the deal and the amount of public funds (some P1 billion) changing hands.

In fact, this is one of the reasons why I think Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez should have included in the investigation the auditor who approved with seeming alacrity the ACMs’ delivery and payment.

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GREEN LIGHT: James Jimenez, the Comelec’s information director, said in his letter that “delivery of the ACMs, as well as payment therefor, was completed before the Supreme Court annulled the contract on the 13th of January 2004.”

He continued: “The Supreme Court had earlier declined to grant a temporary restraining order when such an order was sought by the petitioners in the ITFP v. COMELEC. The Court called for oral arguments, during which time the petitioners set out all their claims and adduced all their evidence. Despite all the petitioners’ protestations however, the Court found no cogent reason to believe that an injunction would be justified, hence no TRO was issued.”

“By refusing to issue a TRO, the Supreme Court effectively gave the COMELEC the green light to proceed with the project; the imprimatur, if you will, to carry out the terms of the contract. Because the Supreme Court refused to prohibit compliance with their respective contractual obligations, the COMELEC and the supplier of the ACMs did exactly that and so began the process of preparing for what would have been the country’s first nationwide automation of the elections.”

“It was only some six months later — when the ACMs had all been delivered and payments had been partially made — that the Supreme Court annulled the contract. Even ignoring that the petitioners had presented the Court with no further evidence since the oral arguments, and that the Court had set aside a consummated contract on the same body of evidence that it had earlier found to be insufficient to justify a mere temporary restraining order, the fact remains that you have absolutely no basis to claim that delivery and payments were rushed ‘despite the Supreme Court’s ruling’ simply because there was no such ruling yet.”

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PAYMENT RUSHED: Anyway, many people know — but the information director and other Comelec officials seem to have chosen to forget — that the contract price for the ACMs was not yet fully paid when the SC decision came down.

If there was no bad faith and criminal intent, why did the Comelec still complete payment when the tribunal already voided the contract and ordered the Ombudsman to investigate any wrongdoing?

The Comelec must be desperate for solid arguments in construing the absence of a court TRO as a “green light” for the ACMs’ delivery and payment.

With the Signal-3 typhoon already battering the Comelec, they still went ahead. Were Chairman Benjamin Abalos and his fellow commissioners afraid his friend the supplier might demand the return of the, huh, merchandise?

Why did they not give back the machines as ordered by the court? Now the Comelec is stuck with paying P3.9 million a year to warehouse those ACMs that it does not own. Another case coming up on that illegal payment?

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ON ITS OWN: The Ombudsman justified her sweeping absolution of Comelec officials by saying that the complainants were often absent from the hearings and that they had failed to submit evidence.

But Section 13 of Article XI (Accountability of Public Officers) of the Constitution says that among the duties and functions of the Ombudsman is to: “1. Investigate ON ITS OWN, or on complaint by any person, any act or omission of any public official, employee, office or agency, when such act or omission appears to be illegal, unjust, improper, or inefficient.” (CAPITALS supplied)

A reader, lawyer Manuel P. Teoxon Sr., wrote to bolster the above point that the Ombudsman has the duty to investigate even in the absence of any complainant.

He cited the Ombudsman Act of 1989 (RA 6770), which in Section 15 (5) mandates the Ombudsman to: “(5) Direct any government agency for assistance and information necessary in the discharge of its responsibilities, and to examine, if necessary, pertinent records and documents.”

Teoxon also said that under Section 4 of that law, the Ombudsman can direct the Comelec or Mega Pacific officials to furnish it copies of documents relating to the contracts and then report any irregularity to the Commission on Audit for action.

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TAX-FREE COMPUTERS: Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile has an idea that Postscript supports. He filed a bill exempting the sale or importation of computer software and hardware from the Value-Added Tax and their donation from the donor’s tax.

“Society today depends heavily upon technological advancement, especially information technology,” Enrile said in Senate Bill No. 1196. “To be at par with the global trend, we need to encourage and expand our knowledge regarding information technology.”

He said that more people, especially the lower-income classes, should be given a chance to learn to use computers. Unfortunately, high-tech computers are beyond the reach of most people.

To bring down costs, he proposed that they be exempted from the 12-percent VAT by amending Section 109 of the National Internal Revenue Code to exclude the sale or importation of computers, including computer software and hardware.

His bill also seeks to exempt from the donor’s tax any person who donates a computer, software and hardware, to any educational institution or to any government agency or to any accredited non-governmental organization.

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P.C. ASSEMBLY: Corollary to Enrile’s proposal, Postscript proposes that the assembly and maintenance of computers be taught as a vocational course in public and private high schools.

Assembling and trouble-shooting computers is easy. It can be learned in one semester if there are demonstration units, tools, software and competent instructors.

Once a school develops a pool of student-technicians, it can assemble its own computers and maintain a local network to serve its computer needs at minimal costs. The repair and maintenance can be done also by the students (with instructors).

With the prices of computer parts and software slashed, assuming Enrile’s bill becomes law, students can assemble their own computers and start on their way to information technology.

Computers are a valuable aid to research and learning, especially if schools put up their own Internet service. Being a new and interesting learning aid, computers relieve the boredom about which some students complain.

There should be an accompanying program for linking all schools to an Internet network. This will enable Filipino youths to leap onto the information bandwagon.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 17, 2006)

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