Private life of public officials: When inquiry is proper


    IT is good and sensible that Senator Vicente Sotto, the Senate majority leader, has apologized for his crude interrogation and public shaming of Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo at her confirmation hearing before the congressional Commission on Appointments.

    This way, the nation will be spared a foolish debate on whether Sotto’s action was censurable or whether Taguiwalo’s circumstances as a single parent merit exposure.

    Where should we draw the line on what is legitimate ground for inquiry in the confirmation of a presidential appointee, and what should be considered impermissible?

    If there are no rules and guidelines, any question may be asked at these confirmation hearings, and any appointee may keep hidden whatever he considers confidential.

    But the truth is, the determination of an appointee’s fitness for public office requires a degree of inquiry, even if it is sometimes disagreeable.

    People generally tend to justify nosiness on private matters as “in the public interest.” That is an unsound rule to follow without qualification.

    The British press complaints commission laid down this important guideline: “The public interest is not defined as what is interesting to the public.” Used loosely, this would include matters of prurient interest.

    At the recent CA hearing, we can fault Senator Sotto for defining the public interest in this way. He carelessly inquired into the fact that Secretary Taguiwalo is the single parent of two daughters. And he compounded this violation by making offensive remarks about the matter.

    The senator should remember that his work as CA member is not the same as his work as host of the TV noontime show, “Eat Bulaga.” In that show, he and his co-hosts have freedom to say anything and be vulgar as much as they dare. In the CA, he is bound by the duties and ethics of Senate membership.

    Under questioning, Secretary Taguiwalo disclosed that she gave birth to her second daughter while under detention during the time of martial law.

    In apologizing for his remarks, Sotto himself disclosed that he has two daughters who are single parents. He professed by this to have some sympathy for all single parents. But the harm of course was already done.

    The proper approach, we think, is to always remember this fact: The distinction between private and public life for elected and appointed officials is different from the distinction for ordinary and private citizens. We hold public officials to a different standard, because of the fact that they are public servants, in the pay of the government.

    To quote the book, Honest Government: An Ethics Guide for Public Service (by W. J. Micheoel Cody and Rixhardson R. Lynn): “The public is entitled to know if the official is distracted to the extent that his or her work suffers or if a family member or business associate creates a conflict of interest. The duty is first on the official to disclose to the public when a private matter affects his public responsibility. If he or she chooses not to do so or if he/she cannot recognize the problem, responsible media or other citizens should publicize it.”

    Only those private indiscretions or family problems which may affect performance of the public job need to be publicly known.


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