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Policing gifts to the police

August 15, 2019

Policing gifts to the police 1

PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has said that it is perfectly all right for police officers to accept unsolicited gifts from people as a token of appreciation for the performance of their duties. And once again, the President appears to have instructed government officials to disregard the law, and his loyal followers come to his defense by saying that he is just being practical. Others have even gone further by appealing to a nativist line that it is in our culture to give gifts.

Indeed, the emergence of bureaucracies operating under the principles of the rule of law has clashed with many of our cultural practices. We are a family-oriented people, and it is expected that we would always serve the interest of our parents and siblings. Yet, our laws have restrained public servants from privileging their families over others, and even define corruption as the use of public office to serve private and, by extension, family interests. The principle of objective, detached civil servants has been the cornerstone of modern bureaucracies as theorized by Max Weber. His argument is that this impersonal ethos would bring about efficiency and professionalism in civil service.

The act of receiving gifts is clearly prohibited in RA 3019. Section 3b of the law prohibits “directly or indirectly requesting or receiving any gift, present, share, percentage, or benefit, for himself or for any other person, in connection with any contract or transaction between the Government and any other part, wherein the public officer in his official capacity has to intervene under the law.” This provision covers accepting gifts from people who had been served by a police officer as part of his duties.

On the other hand, it is prohibited to receive gifts from people who have secured or will secure permits through the facilitation or intervention of the police officer. Section 3c prohibits “directly or indirectly requesting or receiving any gift, present or other pecuniary or material benefit, for himself or for another, from any person for whom the public officer, in any manner or capacity, has secured or obtained, or will secure or obtain, any government permit or license, in consideration for the help given or to be given.”

These provisions are reiterated in RA 6713, specifically in Section 7(d) which states: “Public officials and employees shall not solicit or accept, directly or indirectly, any gift, gratuity, favor, entertainment, loan or anything of monetary value from any person in the course of their official duties or in connection with any operation being regulated by, or any transaction which may be affected by the functions of their office.”

However, exceptions were made in Section 14 of RA 3019 which stated: “Unsolicited gifts or presents of small or insignificant value offered or given as a mere ordinary token of gratitude or friendship according to local customs or usage, shall be excepted from the provisions of this Act.”

This is the exception that is now being cited by those who are defending the President’s pronouncement. That is, what he was presumably referring to was the act of receiving unsolicited gifts. But then again, it behooves us to ask what would constitute a gift that is of “small or insignificant value.” Sen. Bato dela Rosa publicly admitted on radio that he himself has accepted a gift in the form of a lechon and an office computer when he was police chief of Davao City. At current prices, a small lechon can cost up to P5,000, and an ordinary desktop could cost much more. It is relevant to ask if these are gifts that could qualify as having “small” or “insignificant” value. Obviously, the law is silent on this.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, in an attempt to wiggle out of the predicament, passed the buck to Congress, apparently and subtly suggesting that a legislation be passed to define what “small or insignificant value” means. Indeed, the phrase is open to various interpretations. It was even suggested that this should be determined relatively in relation to the capacity of the giver of the unsolicited gift. A P5,000-worth gift may be large or significant to an ordinary person, but would qualify as small and insignificant if the giver is a billionaire. This alone reveals how at present it would be very easy to game the rules.

But then again, another can easily argue that the exception stipulated in Section 14 of RA 3019 is effectively repealed by the sweeping statement used in Section 7d of RA 6713, a law passed much later and which has a repealing clause, which practically bans public officials from receiving anything of monetary value, including gifts. RA 6713 repeals or modifies RA 3019, considering that the former also provides stiffer penalties for the act of receiving gifts by any public official.

A fundamental issue is whether the President was only referring to the police in his pronouncements. If so, why wouldn’t this also apply to other civil servants in the government bureaucracy that would include public school teachers, medical workers in public hospitals, and employees in government departments and bureaus? And if it applies to everyone, then we may be facing a more serious problem. It is important to point out that even the simple act of receiving gifts as tokens for the performance of a duty, more so if extended to the entire civil service, faces the risk of being institutionalized. It may become an unsaid standard to deliver extra-special or high quality of public service in anticipation of some kind of reward from an appreciative public. This would then work against the presumption that people paid with taxpayer’s monies must endeavor to render quality service at all times.

Gift-giving is indeed ingrained as a culturally acceptable practice. But in the real world, we give gifts not because we have been served well, but simply because we care.

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