POSTSCRIPT / January 5, 2021 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Deadline tomorrow for gifts, favors, etc.

YOU have until tomorrow (Jan. 6), the Feast of the Three Kings, to give something of value to government officials with whom you have pending delicate business to close without you being accused of bribery and them of corruption.

The Epiphany caps the longest Yuletide in the Christian world that, in the Philippines, starts on Dec.16 with the nine pre-dawn Simbang Gabi, reaches a high point on Christmas Day, and culminates in tomorrow’s feast marked by gift-giving.

The Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (RA 3019), the main anti-corruption law, lists acts of public officers that constitute or lead to graft or corruption. But with Malacañang’s latest pronouncements on gifts and such things as vaccines, we’re now confused as to the law’s application.

Over the years, the law has lost much of its sting with some crooks in the government giving one another enough space to make money on the side by their adroit exercise of discretion and creative interpretation of the law.

Many people not directly disadvantaged or harmed by corruption seem to have grown tolerant of the symbiotic exchange of gifts and favors between officials and those dealing with government, especially during such special seasons as Christmas time.

Malacañang has justified the smuggling of unlicensed COVID-19 vaccines and their use on soldiers (and reportedly at least one Cabinet official) who are not priority recipients. There were also earlier claims that the vaccines were donated, not bought by the government.

Last Tuesday, when presidential spokesman Harry Roque was asked about the propriety of Presidential Security Group personnel receiving China-made Sinopharm vaccine, he said that the serum had a mere token value and receiving it would not be a case of corruption.

Roque sought to calm the brewing storm in a distance press briefing from Baguio City. He said:

Ako po ay abogado, hindi po ‘yan (RA 3019) absolute. ‘Yung mga tokens po, pinapayagan naman lalo na kung panahon ng Pasko. Pwede po ang tokens, ‘yung mga wala masyadong halaga. (I‘m a lawyer. That law is not absolute. Tokens can be accepted especially during the Christmas season. Tokens are allowed especially if the items are of little value.)”

Dr. Eric Domingo, director-general of the Food and Drug Administration, has warned about the risks of using unregistered vaccines. He says that even donated medicines need regulatory approval. China’s Sinopharm, he adds, has not applied for FDA clearance.

The use of the vaccines was disclosed the other Saturday by President Duterte himself in a televised meeting with Cabinet officials and experts. He said that “many” Filipinos, including soldiers, have been inoculated with vaccines of Sinopharm.

The other day, chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo gave an extended opinion that the rule of law was observed in the bringing in of the vaccine. That was done, he said, in line with the PSG’s duty to protect the Chief Executive.

“Consciously endangering one’s own life, is not a crime,” he said. “Instead of being criticized, these sentinels of the President should be commended for putting their lives on the line to protect (him).”

He said they were vaccinated without using public funds, so the issue of priority or who should have received the vaccines first did not hold. He claimed that the PSG members volunteered to take the shots.

Critics insisted that the vaccination was illegal, citing the FDA law which prohibits the manufacture, importation, exportation, sale, offering for sale, distribution, transfer, non-consumer use, promotion, advertising, or sponsorship of any health product that is not registered with the regulator.

Saying “the rule of law must be the rule,” Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon supported calls for an investigation of the smuggling of the vaccine and the inoculation of PSG personnel.

One nagging question on social media has been “What for is the FDA if foreign drugs can come in unregulated and be used freely?”

We have not heard a cogent answer to that, nor are Malacañang apologists discussing it. Noteworthy is that nobody has raised the issue in court, which could be just wasted effort since the outcome seems almost predictable.

With Malacañang’s mouthpieces Panelo and Roque having judged the smuggling and the dispensing of the unauthorized vaccines as lawful, that may be the last word on the question of legality and accountability.

There has been a growing, and a quite disturbing, impression that under the current dispensation, the law is what Malacañang says it is – and that’s final!

But those who have the time and perseverance to read on the matter of donations, gifts and the vaccines’ supposedly being mere tokens, may check on:

*RA 6713 (The Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees) which prohibits public officials and employees from soliciting or accepting, directly or indirectly, any gift, gratuity, favor, entertainment, loan or anything of monetary value from any person: (a) in the course of their official duties; or (b) in connection with any operation being regulated by, or any transaction which may be affected by, the functions of their office.

*Presidential Decree No. 46 (Giving of Gifts on any Occasion) which punishes the act of giving, or offering to give, to a public official or employee, a gift, present or other valuable things on any occasion, including Christmas, when such gift, present or other valuable things is given by reason of the public official/employee’s position, regardless of whether or not the same is for past favor or the giver hopes or expects to receive a favor or better treatment in the future from the public official or employee concerned, in the discharge of his official functions. Included within the prohibition is the throwing of parties or entertainment in honor of the public official or employee, or of his immediate relatives.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 5, 2021)

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Dear Sir Pascual, The problem is that the issue regarding the inoculation of the PSG is not so much as one of corruption (violation of RA 3019) because there is no exchange or reciprocity. It is more of a violation of the law (regarding "smuggling" and without the approval of the PhilFDA). In any case, I agree completely that what is prevailing is not the rule of law but that what the Palace says is the law. In addition, it appears that the current administration is "incapable" of doing anything wrong...IT IS ALWAYS RIGHT (i.e., legal). And what are we doing about it? As it is said, All it takes for evil to win is for all good men to do nothing.

Edgar

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