Thursday, March 26, 2015

Insanity vs. integrity in public office

NO law prohibits a spouse, sibling, child, parent, or any relative of an incumbent in public office to be a candidate in an election.
The only disqualifications categorically set by law are insanity and conviction for specific crimes, but nothing about a candidate’s kinship by blood or affinity to someone in power.
Mere showing of unstable mind is not enough to be disqualified. Section 12 of the Omnibus Election Code (Batas Pambansa Bilang 881, December 3, 1985) requires that insanity or incompetence is “declared by competent authority.”
That is why no matter what critics say about President Benigno Aquino 3rd and Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, they could not be disqualified for psychological incapacity. Some people tried to produce proofs to boot them out, but those turned out to be fake.
One who is convicted may still occupy public office if the conviction is not for crimes like subversion, insurrection, rebellion or any other offense that carries a jail term of more than 18 months, or a crime involving moral turpitude.
And even when convicted for those crimes, the grant of executive pardon, clemency or amnesty may still qualify the disqualified candidate or public officer to run.
That explains why Joseph Estrada was allowed to run and remains as mayor of Manila despite his conviction for plunder in 2007. Barely one week after his conviction at the Sandiganbayan following seven years of costly litigation process, Estrada was freed on account of a presidential clemency pardon.
He had a written commitment that he would not seek any public office as a condition for the clemency, but no law required that so it was set aside.
The qualifications for public office appear too easy to meet: natural-born citizen of the Philippines, able to read and write, a registered voter, plus the age and residency requirements for specific positions; and the disqualifications too easy to skirt.
The next election is drawing nearer. The election period is still 11 months away, but for many months now, we have already been seeing billboards and tarpaulins with the blinding names and faces of relatives of the incumbents.
Because the qualifications seem too easy to meet, it behooves upon us voters to pick the best candidates who can comply with other requirements spelled out in Republic Act No. 6713, or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees. This is the difficult part in public office.
Rule 6, Section 8 of the law mandates that “officials and employees and their families shall lead modest and simple lives appropriate to their positions and income.”
They should not indulge in extravagant or ostentatious display of wealth in any form, the law says. But is it being observed?
The implementing rules of the law explains: “Basically, modest and simple living means maintaining a standard of living within the public official and employee’s visible means of income as correctly disclosed in his income tax returns, annual statement of assets, liabilities and net worth and other documents relating to financial and business interests and connections.”
“Public funds and proper for official use and purpose shall be utilized with the diligence of a good father of a family,” it further said.
Perhaps this reminder should be displayed in strategic spaces in all government offices instead of having huge framed photographs of the President and the head of office hanging on the walls.
Another requirement for public officers that is seemingly forgotten, or taken for granted, is the rule on public disclosure of the identity of relatives in public office and of business interests.
These are important to determine conflict of interest involving a public official or employee. The disclosure of relatives in government extends up to the fourth civil degree by blood or affinity, meaning up to bilas (sibling of a sibling’s spouse), inso and balae (parents in law of children).
Violation of these provisions carries a penalty of fine of the equivalent of up to six months’ salary, suspension of up to one year, or removal from office. These have been blatantly violated but we don’t see anyone getting punished for these.
It may be easy to meet the qualifications and dodge the disqualifications of being a candidate for public office, but the difficult requirements for accountability, honesty, simplicity, humility, and transparency are often ignored.
By taking these principles for granted, we allow the few families who have made public service as a private enterprise to rule us for years. It has become normal for a politician’s son, wife, brother, or parent, in law or kumpadre, to run for the same or another government office.
How do we solve this problem of political dynasties? It is ambitious to do it by law because most of them are in Congress that will make the law. We cannot expect them to come up with a law that will “disinherit” them of their main source of livelihood.
It is in our hands, the voters. Responsible voting is the only way to bring back integrity, accountability, honesty, humility, simplicity and credibility in public office. If the good men will see that voters have become responsible, they might consider joining public service and leave out the unqualified.

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