Smartmatic contract a 'midnight deal,' says ex-poll exec

By RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 05 2015 05:58 PM | Updated as of Jan 06 2015 08:21 PM

MANILA - Former elections commissioner Augusto Lagman criticized as a midnight deal the Commission on Elections' decision to accept Smartmatic's proposal to undertake the examination and diagnostics of some precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines that will be refurbished for the 2016 elections.

In an interview, Lagman said Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes had already mentioned in a previous interview that he is already preparing for retirement.

"Is this part of his preparation? Normally, when somebody else is going to take over you, let that person make those decisions. They had to make that midnight deal...It leaves a very bad taste in the mouth," he said.

The poll body is standing pat on its decision to give the company the contract for the first phase of the refurbishment of some 80,000 PCOS machines for the 2016 presidential elections.

Brillantes said the resolution approved last month accepts Smartmatic's proposal to examine, diagnose and undertake minor repairs on the machines. This phase has a maximum cost of P200 million.

"What will happen next is we will proceed with diagnostics, negotiate with Smartmatic to lower P300 million then they decide whether they go on," he said.

The Comelec chairman said much would depend on the four poll commissioners in the steering committee. A Philippine Star report earlier said Brillantes along with Commissioners Lucenito Tagle, Elias Yusoph, Christian Robert Lim and Al Parreño voted to extend the warranty of the PCOS machines with Smartmatic while those who opposed the proposal were Commissioners Luie Guia and Arthur Lim.

"They are the 4. Ok lang sila kaya kami nasanay sa 1st stage nadivide 4 nahati, naging 2-2. Gusto iba may transparency. We had to come in, 5-2, Commissioner Guia nagdissent. Maganda dissenting niya. Gusto ko sana may transparency. Saka si Commissioner Art Lim kung timeline, kung kulang ok na; kung kasya pa sige public bidding tayo.."

The next 2 stages - refurbishment proper worth P900 million and upgrading worth P800 million - brings the total cost to refurbish the machines to P2 billion.

The refurbishment is separate from the purchase of 23,000 new PCOS machines, which will be covered by a separate public bidding.

So far, only Smartmatic and Indra have signified their intent to bid to supply the new machines.

Brillantes said the 3-phase refurbishment is actually Smartmatic's proposal. Their acceptance of Smartmatic's proposal for the first phase did not undergo public bidding for the following reasons:

first is the timeline after Comelec said they need to begin with the examination and diagnostics soon or they might not have enough time.

second, Comelec thinks it may be risky to give this phase to another company citing the previous legal squabble between Smartmatic and Dominion Voting Systems over the source code in 2013 because of proprietary issues and,

third, under the procurement law, Brillantes said the Comelec is empowered to give the contract to the manufacturer of the machines, which is Smartmatic.

The Comelec chief clarified that the first phase is the most minor phase. The next 2 phases may not even be awarded to Smartmatic, depending on the public bidding.

He said Smartmatic's bagging of the first phase does not give it an edge in the bidding for the next 2 phases.

Smartmatic, however, offered to upgrade the 80,000 machines and make it at par with the 23,000 new ones though Comelec is still non-committal.

The 23,000 brand new machines will go to the National Capital Region and surrounding areas while the 80,000 refurbished machines will go to the provinces.

Lagman, however, does not buy the Comelec's reasons, saying he does not think the poll body is wanting for time.

"It's just a matter of adding more people. How many can one diagnose in one day? Maybe they can do one in a day, one person in 80 days, you can do 80. One person can do 80. They hire 1,000 people in 80 days, that's done. It's just a matter of adding resources. Seventeen months is more than enough time to diagnose and repair 80,000."

"If I had my way, I would ask that they declare (Smartmatic president) Cesar Flores persona non grata and deport him. They insulted not only the Comelec but the Filipino people when he said they are the only ones authorized to repair those machines. That's ridiculous," he said.

Lagman reiterated that Smartmatic is not the manufacturer of the PCOS machines while the software is not theirs either.

"They are not the manufacturer. Why would there be a problem? PCOS is just an integration of PC scanner and tape printer. What's so difficult about repairing those three pieces of equipment? It's a midnight deal," he said.

Lagman reiterated his previous positions that the PCOS is not the best fit for Philippine elections. He said that since election automation is an IT project, the Comelec should listen to IT practitioners.

"So many IT people have expressed their opinions about their choice. It is lawyers making decisions on IT projects," he said.

The former Comelec official also said he doubts the Comelec advisory council did its job of properly advising the poll body.

"I've always been very consistent: PCOS isn't the right system for us. What does PCOS do for elections? Save the election process by 12 hours, just 12 hours. Are we willing to spend billions? I'd rather they give money to double salaries of teachers or get another team to do counting if the teachers are too tired. You don't have to automate everything. PCOS doesn't automate voting, just counting and canvassing. Removing automation of counting, we lose transparency; canvassing will still be automated; automation of canvassing saves process by 5-6 weeks. Automation of counting saves process by 12 hours napakaliit. You compare with automation of canvassing which can save process by 5-6 weeks, isa 2 hours lang. Expense is lopsided. Automation of canvassing is only P400 million yet it saves process 5-6 weeks. We don't lose transparency... You don't have to be an IT person," Lagman said.

Lagman is prepared to join moves to elevate the matter before the Supreme Court, saying he can join as one of the signatories.

Brillantes has justified the decision to keep the old machines, saying they had wanted brand new machines for all but the executive refused to give them the P32 billion they need.

He said the Comelec advisory council later advised the poll body to refurbish the old machines to be of use during the 2016 polls.

The 80,000 machines that will be refurbished were used during the 2010 presidential and 2013 midterm elections. In the 2013 elections, there were glitches in the machines during the mock elections.

Brillantes, however, said the United States uses machines that are 17 or even 25 years old.

The 80,000 machines are all Comelec owned after the poll body exercised its option to purchase in 2013.

"We bought these for P7 billion option to purchase P1.8 billion, 2013 atin na yan. All 80,000 belong to Comelec. Sabi bakit kayo gagamit bago, after we were convinced, sabi bigyan namin kayo P17 billion bumili bago for additional voters and lowering clustering kinompute namin binaba na namin sa 23,000."

Brillantes is aware of the questions on Smartmatic's credibility, in the aftermath of the glitches in previous elections as well as the so-called 60-30-10 vote pattern that was allegedly pre-programmed in the 2013 midterm elections to favor the administration candidates for senator.

However, Brillantes dismisses the criticisms. "2009 hanggang 2013 pero kung pakikinggan sino nagsasalita, these are same people talking. Till now, they only changed name, AES Watch Center for Clean Elections."

Brillantes maintained that in the resolution of electoral protests, about 90 in 2010 and 55 in 2013, nothing suggested there was anything wrong with the machines.

"Wala pa napapakita mali resulta ng makina. Ganun karami, wala kami nakikita. May digital lines daw hindi naapektuhan. May digital lines pero di napektuhan resulta," he said.

The resolution was approved with just two months to go before Brillantes, Commissioners Lucenito Tagle and Elias Yusoph retire in February. Only four commissioners will remain pending the appointment of new Comelec members.

The four are Commissioners Christian Robert Lim, Al Parreno, Luie Tito Guia and Arthur Lim.

For its part, AESWatch released a prayer where it called for an end to the use of the PCOS machines. Part of the prayer read: "May we be freed from the evils and dangers of the PCOS machines supplied by the non-compliant and profit hungry marketing company called Smartmatic. Whose bread and butter in the last two elections in the Philippines was to supply inherently vulnerable machines not their own and did not count votes accurately."