MANILA (UPDATED)— Several high-ranking officials of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) are being asked to explain their participation in an allegedly "grossly disadvantageous" partnership with Impact Hub Manila, a start-up contracted to mount this year's series of election debates that eventually faltered.
In an internal memorandum obtained by ABS-CBN News, Comelec Commissioner Rey Bulay flagged several possible irregularities with the poll body's deal with Impact Hub, which is allegedly financially incapable in staging projects of such scale.
"Why was Impact Hub chosen organizer and how were they vetted?" Bulay said in a strongly-worded memo dated April 22.
Impact Hub, led by CEO Celeste Rondario, repeatedly issued bouncing checks to Sofitel Philippine Plaza, forcing the hotel to seek Comelec's help in collecting over P14 million in unpaid bills.
The failure of Impact Hub to pay Sofitel forced the Comelec to move the last leg of debates to next week, with the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) as new partner.
According to Bulay in the memo, some of his colleagues were willing to cough up P15 million to save Impact Hub from its financial mess with Sofitel.
"While others are considering releasing P15 million from Comelec funds to pay Sofitel, no one was able to cite the basis for the release of such funds. Impact Hub contracted Sofitel for the [debate] venue… It is clear that Comelec has no contractual relationship with Sofitel," Bulay said.
"If Comelec releases P15 million of public funds, Comelec will be wrongly covering up Impact Hub’s liability, as Comelec will be paying on behalf of Impact Hub," he added.
Bulay also discovered that Comelec directors James Jimenez and Frances Arabe have moved for the release of the P15 million, with Comelec chairman Saidamen Pangarungan and commissioner Socorro Inting approving the disbursement.
"I also learned that the EID through Directors Jimenez and Arabe have already requested and certified the release of the funds through Purchase Requests, which they have submitted to chairman Pangarungan and commissioner Inting, who signed the same," Bulay noted.
The commissioner found questionable the signing of Pangarungan and Inting on the release of funds, considering that the supposed agreement was never tackled by the en banc.
"Where is 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 who should have handled the same?"
Upon checking Comelec's website, the supposed contract pertaining to the poll body' promise of payment of P15 million to Impact Hub is not publicly available.
Bulay also took exception to Jimenez's letter to Sofitel vouching for Impact Hub after it failed to pay the hotel as agreed upon in their contract.
"Why did Dir. Jimenez guarantee the same on behalf of Comelec in a letter dated April 1? Is Dir Jimenez authorized to make such guarantee? Is Dir. Jimenez privy to the financial status of Impact Hub to make such guarantee?" Bulay asked.
In the said letter addressed to Sofitel Philippines general manager Olivier Larcher, Jimenez spoke of a certain "notice of award" granted to Impact Hub amounting to P15.3 million.
"Under the NOA, Impact Hub Manila will receive a total of P15,300,000 for the staging of the said debates... These documents are sufficient proof that the provider will be paid by Comelec," Jimenez said.
In a statement Friday night, Jimenez said he has received a copy of the inter-office memorandum from Bulay that ordered him and other officials to submit an explanation.
"The memorandum has set a deadline for the response it demands, and I - as well as all other recipients of the memorandum - fully intend to meet that deadline. Just as importantly, due deference to the Honorable Commissioner dictates that any response I make should be made to him, first and foremost," Jimenez said.
"For this reason, I would refrain from any further comments on the matter for now," he added.
Arabe issued a similar reply.
"I have yet to study the allegations therein and will respond directly to Commissioner Bulay on the deadline set, Arabe said in a text message to ABS-CBN News
Aside from recommending the termination of Comelec's deal with Impact Hub, Bulay is also seeking a "deeper" probe into the matter and the possible filing of charges against those found liable. - with a report from RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News