ELECTRICITY providers risk their franchises being reviewed or canceled for violating government billing rules, a senator said.

“Your past sins may get revealed and affect your franchise renewal application,” Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian told dzBB radio in Filipino on Sunday. “Just because you got away at first doesn’t mean it will be forgotten.”

The corporate regulator last week fined Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) P19 million for ignoring advisories on billing customers during the lockdown.

The utility giant failed to inform clients that their bills for March to May had been estimated, while failing to comply with an order to allow them to pay in installments, the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) said.

It said Meralco had neglected to provide accurate and timely information during the coronavirus pandemic and created chaos and confusion among consumers.

The regulator said it had evaluated billing statements submitted by complainants, its own employees, the office of Mr. Gatchalian and consumer group National Association of Electricity Consumers for Reforms.

It charged the utility P100,000 for every continuing violation that started on May 5, when the ERC first issued its advisory on lockdown billings, to July 9, when Meralco issued personalized letters to consumers explaining their bills.

Mr. Gatchalian, who heads the Senate Energy Committee, said Meralco’s fines were small compared with the confusion it caused and the hefty utility charges that millions of consumers were paying for.

“Exploitation during the crisis and pandemic deserves due punishment,” he said.

Meralco, which earlier said it would file a pleading, should accept the penalty instead of fighting the regulator, Mr. Gatchalian said.

“If they do, we will advise the ERC to raise their penalties and look for other ways to get them penalized,” he added.

Meralco was also ordered to shoulder P275 million worth of distribution, supply and metering charges of about two million poor consumers with less than 100 kilowatt-hours of consumption.

But Ray C. Espinosa, the company’s chief executive officer, had told congressmen at a hearing last week the company would cover charges worth P101 million.

A number of consumers reported a spike in their May electricity bills, which later turned out to be just estimates. The government had allowed such estimates based on consumers’ power usage three months before the lockdown.

This prompted ERC to order electricity distributors to conduct physical meter readings and charge consumers for actual consumption during the quarantine months.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte locked down the entire Luzon island in mid-March to contain a coronavirus pandemic. People should stay home except to buy food and other basic goods, he said.

The lockdown on the island was extended twice and thrice for Metro Manila. The lockdown in most areas has since been relaxed.

Meralco’s controlling stakeholder, Beacon Electric Asset Holdings, Inc., is partly owned by PLDT, Inc. Hastings Holdings, Inc., a unit of PLDT Beneficial Trust Fund subsidiary MediaQuest Holdings, Inc., has an interest in BusinessWorld through the Philippine Star Group, which it controls. — Adam J. Ang