The Law and Public Displays of Wealth

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Just recently, a local actress drew flak for commenting on a public official’s wife’s post, calling it out for being “insensitive” in view of the current pandemic.

I tried to see it in the local actress’ point of view, who may have a point but didn’t know how to eloquently say it. Maybe what she was referring to was that provision in R.A. No. 6713 or The Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, or could it be that provision under Human Relations of the Civil Code of the Philippines?

What R.A. No. 6713 says on displays of wealth

R.A. No. 6713’s main policy is to promote a high standard of ethics in public service. The law states requires that Public officials and employees shall at all times be accountable to the people and shall discharge their duties with utmost responsibility, integrity, competence, and loyalty, act with patriotism and justice, lead modest lives, and uphold public interest over personal interest.

The said law enumerates the norms of conduct of Public Officials and Employees that every one of them shall observe as standards of personal conduct in the discharge and execution of their official duties. I think the most apropos provision in this scenario is found in Section 4 (h), to wit:

“(h) Simple living. Public officials and employees and their families shall lead modest lives appropriate to their positions and income. They shall not indulge in extravagant or ostentatious display of wealth in any form.”

The law seems to be clear, straightforward and devoid of further interpretation, but read again. How do you define modest? What is appropriate? How do you determine extravagance? What is ostentatious?

What might be modest to one may not be modest to another. A Corvette to someone like me is an extravagance, but a drop in the ocean to someone like Senator Pacquiao, who is known to have become a billionaire from his boxing earnings and investments prior to his stint in politics. However, there’s still the catch-all provision that “they shall not indulge in extravagant or ostentatious display of wealth IN ANY FORM.” How does one deal with the phrase “IN ANY FORM?”

I think this has to be construed in accordance to the personal circumstances of the public official and his or her family. This is exactly why SALNs (Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth) are submitted regularly by public officials and employees to provide transparency, and for the public to gauge who has questionable sources of wealth.

This interpretation is in line with RA 6713’s Implementing Rules and Regulations, where it further defines the definition of MODEST AND SIMPLE LIVING.

Section 8 of the IRR states:

“Section 8. Officials and employees and their families shall lead modest and simple lives appropriate to their position and income. They shall not indulge in extravagant or ostentatious display of wealth in any form.

Basically, modest and simple living means maintaining a standard of living within the public official or 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 property for official use and purpose shall be utilized with the diligence of a good father of a family.”

Unfortunately for the local actress, politico’s wife did not run afoul of the modesty provision with her posts, since their family had acquired wealth as private citizens for many years from legitimate sources, and their standard of living is within politico’s visible means of income as disclosed in his government filings (i.e. SALN). A quick google search would reveal that the said politico is one of the richest people in the world because of the sport he excelled at prior to his becoming a public official.  

What the Civil Code says about displays of wealth

The Civil Code of the Philippines under Human Relations has a little known provision on displays of extravagance:

“Art. 25. Thoughtless extravagance in expenses for pleasure or display during a period of acute public want or emergency may be stopped by order of the courts at the instance of any government or private charitable institution.”

This applies to all persons, whether a private citizen or a public official/employee altogether. There being a pandemic and immense economic turmoil, its possible for government OR a private charitable institution to file a civil case to prohibit ANYONE from showing thoughtless extravagance these times.

What Court would stop local politico’s wife from posting on her social media account? Let’s get real here: it would be a waste of judicial resources to police people in their social media posts when we have no clear cut definition on what exactly the word “extravagance” means.

The problem of these laws are still its relativity and being open to interpretations (i.e. show of wealth “in any form”, definitions of extravagance). Given this was passed during very different times (1949 for the Civil Code and 1989 for RA No. 6713, both more than 30 years ago), I presume it’s high time this was revisited to see if it still reflects the spirit and intent of the law as applied today.