Seares: No-gifts policy: Robredo looks at general rule; Digong, the exception

News sense

WHEN last Sept. 10 President Duterte slammed Vice President Leni Robredo for criticizing his remark that officials may accept gifts, he said he had quoted the anti-graft law. He didn’t talk without basis, he said, lashing out at the VP: “Ma’am, if you are the president of the Philippines, we’re dead. You do not even read a book.”

Robredo cited another law, the conduct and ethical standards code, in finding fault with Duterte’s statement last August to police officials. “Giving nominal gifts out of generosity or gratitude is not bribery.”

Both are lawyers (Duterte: San Beda College of Law, 1971; Robredo: University of Nueva Caceres, 1992). Each cited a different law but both laws substantially say the same thing. Each must have read the law, back in law school and checked it out again by themselves or through office staff.

How then could their readings of the law clash?

A plausible explanation is that the VP was looking at the general rule, the “no-gifts policy” of the government, while the President was looking at the exception.

Digong in whacking Leni for not reading said, “There are exemptions. I mentioned ‘nominal’ and ‘out of gratitude.’”

Express exception

Regarding the ban on soliciting or accepting gifts, the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act or Republic Act (RA) 3019 of 1960—which Duterte cited--covers any government contract or transaction or grant of a permit or license where the public official or employee intervenes or helps.

As to the amount of the gift, RA 3019’s definition of terms says the law applies even if it is given on the occasion of a family celebration or a national festivity, if the value of the gift “under the circumstances” is “manifestly excessive.”

Expressly stated as exception are “unsolicited gifts or presents of small or insignificant value offered or given as mere ordinary token of gratitude or friendship according to the customs or usage.”

The anti-graft law does not use the word “nominal” but it says “insignificant” and “token of gratitude.”

Defining ‘gift’

Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees or RA 6173 of 1989—which Robredo cited—is the law that mentions the word “nominal.”

In defining a gift, it says the ban shall not include an “unsolicited gift of nominal or insignificant value, not given in anticipation of, or in exchange for, a favor from a public official or employee.”

Just like the anti-graft law, the conduct and ethics code ban on gifts covers “any gift, gratuity, favor, entertainment, loan, or anything of monetary value” from any person “in connection with any operation being regulated by, or any transaction affected by the function of the office” of the public official or employee.

What’s hazy

The two laws that the President and Vice President relied on separately carry similar prohibition on gift-giving: As a rule, no gift from any person who deals with the government to the public official who decides or acts on the contract, permit, license, or anything else that his office regulates.

That part is clear. What is hazy is the matter of the amount of the gift. A P100,000 cash gift is insignificant, according to a Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission member in the wake of the Duterte-Robredo verbal clash. Rules implementing RA 6173 has set these factors to consider: The salary of the official, the frequency of giving, and expectation of benefits.

But how helpful will that be? Not much. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra last Aug. 20 suggested that despite the glut of laws on the subject, the Civil Service Commission needs to issue guidelines on allowable gifts. And CSC is reportedly working on it.

Gift-giving not the rule

Ideas from the President or the PACC commissioner haven’t given much clarity; they tend to set standards that may even make gift-seeking and gift-giving the general rule rather than the exception.

Sen. Ping Lacson found disturbing Duterte’s injunction to police officials that it is not bribery to accept money from video-carera operations given out of gratitude or generosity. “Insatiable greed starts from petty graft,” he said.

They can’t agree on what is petty. And how, good grief, will they determine generosity or gratitude in a P100,000 cash that passes from, say, a broker to a customs official or a businessman to a BIR assessor?


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