SC junks Sen. Tolentino’s plea to recover P3.3-M paid for election protest in 2016

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court (SC) has dismissed the petition filed by Sen. Francis N. Tolentino for the return of the P3.3 million he turned over to the Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET) in connection with his 2016 election protest against Sen. Leila M. De Lima.

The amount was given to the SET for the retention by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) of 151 vote counting machines (VCMs) and their SD cards, and six consolidated canvassing system (CCS) laptops. The amount was fully paid, after making an initial deposit, on June 13, 2018.

On Oct. 3, 2018, however, Tolentino filed a motion with the SET for the return of his payments. He claimed that despite paying the purchase price of the machines and equipment, he never enjoyed ownership rights over the same.

He also said that could not even access them without permission from the Comelec. He pointed out that since the machines and equipment could not be utilized by him, the amount he paid should be returned.

At the same time, Tolentino asked the SET to declare unconstitutional Section 6.9 of the Automated Election System (AES) contracts between the Comelec and Smartmatic-TIM.

He claimed the AES contract was an obstruction to the free access of litigants engaged in an election case as it imposes a retention cost which is equivalent to the cost of the machines and equipment.

The SET, in a resolution dated Feb. 21, 219 denied Tolentino’s motion. His motion to reconsider the denial was denied by the SET on May 6, 2019. He elevated the case before the SC.

In a full court decision written by Associate Justice Jhosep Y. Lopez, the SC said that the SET “correctly denied petitioner’s (Tolentino) motion for the return of payments.”

Associate Justice Jhosep Y. Lopez

It pointed out that “had the SET ruled differently, it would have unduly favored an electoral candidate because government funds would have been utilized for the continued lease of the retained machines and equipment deemed necessary in his election protest.”

The SC also said:

“Pursuant to the SET's directive, the Comelec had, in fact, preserved and safeguarded the election equipment and materials involving his election protest. Were it not for the election protest initiated by him, said election paraphernalia would have long been turned-over by the Comelec prior to Dec. 1, 2016.

“Due to the lapse of the period to return the goods, the Comelec became bound to pay Smartmatic-TIM under the AES Contracts.

“In the same vein, there is no merit in petitioner's relentless contention that by paying the retention costs, which is equivalent to the entire cost of the election machines and equipment, he became the owner thereof.

“To stress, the payments made by petitioner did not cover the full cost of the election machines and equipment. Rather, it is only a portion of the purchase price paid by the Comelec in the form of a lease or rental fee.

“This is precisely the ruling of the SET when it clarified that the amount deposited by petitioner pertains to the retention cost or rental fee. In turn, the retention cost is only a part of the full cost of the machines and equipment needed by the Comelec to pay Smartmatic-TIM under the option to purchase clause of the contract.

“Nevertheless, all is not lost for petitioner as he can still institute a separate action to declare the alleged invalidity of Section 6.9 of the AES Contracts and to address any other concerns relative to his alleged right, if any, over the subject machines and equipment against the Comelec.

“At this juncture, it is well to remind that the judgments of the electoral tribunals are beyond judicial interference. The only instance where this Court may intervene in the exercise of its so-called extraordinary jurisdiction is upon a determination that the decision or resolution of the electoral tribunal was rendered without or in excess of its jurisdiction, or with grave abuse of discretion....

“Irrefragably, absent any clear showing of grave abuse of discretion, there is no occasion for this Court to exercise its corrective power.

“WHEREFORE, premises considered, Resolution No. 16-141 dated Feb. 21, 2019 and Resolution No. 16-143 dated May 6, 2019 of the SET in SET Case No. 001-16 are AFFIRMED. SO ORDERED.”