Comelec chief urged to take leave of absence

RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 23 2017 12:13 PM | Updated as of Aug 23 2017 12:34 PM

Commission on Elections Chairman Andres Bautista. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Commission on Elections Commissioner Rowena Guanzon on Wednesday urged poll chief Andres Bautista to go on leave amid the ongoing crisis over his alleged unexplained wealth.

This, after the House Appropriations Committee cancelled the agency's budget briefing today, citing the requirement of the committee's rules that the head of agency be present.

“Sino ba head of agency ngayon? Kasi as far as Congress is concerned, ang head of agency si Chair Bautista. He is in the country. Andito po siya sa Pilipinas at wala naman po siyang na-file na leave of absence. Nagsu-suffer po ang Comelec kaya po magmi-meeting muna kaming 5,” Commissioner Guanzon said.

Guanzon told media that she had long advised Bautista to go on leave following his public spat with his estranged wife over allegations he amassed some P1 billion in unexplained wealth. She said the agency is already affected by the poll chief's personal troubles.

"Tumango-tango naman po siya. Sabi niya will consider it. The following week, sinabi ko ulit sa kaniya. Nag-meeting kaming 5 with him. Sabi ko sa kaniya, I was very candid with him, ‘You know, I already said to you last week so I’ll say it again. Mag-leave ka na for your sake also but really for the sake of Comelec,” Guanzon said.

The poll official said Comelec had long anticipated that they will be affected by Bautista's troubles. She said many commissioners anticipated potential problems with their budget hearings.

“I understand his personal predicament pero may mga priorities po tayo para sa bayan at sa Comelec. Budget po ito. Nakakatakot ho kasi baka magalit sila sa amin at bawasan po yung budget naming. 2018 is our preparation year for the 2019 elections. Nakakabahala lang at sana naman di mabawasan yung budget naming," she said.

The Comelec chief's wife earlier claimed that she discovered bank and real property documents, and several passbooks under her husband's name that were not included in his 2016 statement of assets, liabilities and net worth.

Bautista has denied the allegation, saying his wife was seeking a P620 million settlement.

Both Bautista and Senior Commissioner Christian Robert Lim were absent during Wednesday's hearing at the House of Representatives. The other commissioners including Guanzon were present.

Under questioning by Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, Executive Director Jose Tolentino explained that Chairman Bautista will be meeting with the guidance counselors of his children.

"It has been set earlier that's why he couldn’t attend this hearing. I have a copy of the chairman's memorandum saying that he will be attending or meeting with the guidance counselors of his children. He is requesting senior commissioner Christian Robert Lim or if he's unable to attend, Commissioner Al Pareno, to lead the team that will be presenting,” Tolentino said.

This prompted Lagman to ask for the cancellation.

"Well, considering that the chairman of the Comelec is absent and there is no official communication with respect to his absence and there is no authority given by the chair to any of the commissioners to represent him in this briefing and consistent with our rule that the head of the agency must be present before we proceed with the presentation of the proposed budget of said agency, I move that we cancel the budget hearing for today," said Lagman.

Commissioner Arthur Lim offered an apology in behalf of the agency and asked that they be allowed to proceed.

Lawmakers however were not satisfied.

Appropriations Committee Chair Karlo Nograles said, "Given there was no formal communication or letter given to this committee given also as manifested by the executive director there are personal reasons for the absence of the chairman all of us here understand the personal situation of the chairman."

“We're giving [the] Comelec [chairman] a chance to appear again tomorrow. Many members of the House want to propound questions to the chairman. Given that we have allowed him leave today, tomorrow it will be fair enough for us to expect his attendance. Ensure you are all present together. Otherwise, unless the chairman presents himself, you may suffer consequences with that, we will cancel first the budget briefing of Comelec and defer it tomorrow, 9 a.m.," said Rep. Nograles.

Guanzon told media that they have asked the executive director to get in touch with Bautista.

“It is very urgent that he should be present tomorrow. We will all be back here, the 6 commissioners, will be back here tomorrow,” she said.
 
This is the second time Bautista skipped a congressional hearing since his personal troubles began. Bautista also skipped the hearing of the Suffrage Committee last week on the move to reset the 2017 Barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections.

Bautista's testimony has been widely anticipated by lawmakers since he has yet to face any formal probe about his wife's allegations.

"May memo po si Chair Bautista sa amin kahapon ng hapon na hindi po siya maka-attend today dahil may counselling anak niya at kailangan nandoon din siya. Pero ang hinanap po sa amin ng appropriations committee ay kung may sulat daw po siya sa appropriations committee na siya’y di makakarating at kung sino ang kaniyang designated na representative or magiging head ng Comelec delegation for the budget briefing," Guanzon said.

"Unfortunately, wala po silang makitang letter na addressed to the appropriations committee chair so wala po kami as of today."

An impeachment complaint is expected to be filed against him later today. Guanzon said that should one be filed, she expects Bautista to be able to defend himself.

"If an impeachment complaint is filed against him, I’m sure that he can defend himself ably being a good lawyer, having good lawyers," she said.