By Victor V. Saulon, Sub-editor

Photo by Victor V. Saulon

THE FOUR commissioners of the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) who have been ordered suspended by the Office of the Ombudsman in a case relating to electricity consumers’ bill deposits have filed a petition for temporary restraining order (TRO) with the Court of Appeals (CA), their lawyer said.
“The suspension order is now the subject of a petition we filed with the Court of Appeals,” said Rolando B. Faller, the legal counsel of ERC commissioners Alfredo S. Non, Gloria Victoria C. Yap-Taruc, Josefina Patricia M. Asirit and Geronimo D. Sta. Ana.
“We will await the action of the CA on our request for TRO,” Mr. Faller said. He did not immediately answer when asked about when the petition was filed.
He said the commissioners stated the need for a TRO because the ERC, as a collegial body, cannot act on matters concerning public interest as the law requires a quorum of three to discharge the functions of the commission.
Mr. Faller also said that since the four commissioners are under the Office of the President (OP), “we will also wait for the disposition of the OP as to whether it will cause the implementation of the suspension order.”
Floresinda B. Digal, ERC spokesperson, did not respond to a request for comment in behalf of the commission but instead referred the matter to Mr. Faller. She said the lawyer was overseas as of Sunday. He responded to queries via Viber messaging app.
The suspension came after consumer advocacy group National Association of Electricity Consumers of Reforms, Inc. (Nasecore), represented by its Executive Director Rafael Antonio M. Acebedo, filed the complaint of grave misconduct against the commissioners on Dec. 13, 2017.
The case stemmed from Nasecore’s allegation of “unauthorized use” by distribution utility Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) of the bill deposits of consumers over a 10-year period until 2016, as well as unjust/discriminatory fixing of interest rates on them and their non-crediting in favor of consumers.
Nasecore said the total misappropriated deposits amounted to P61.36 billion, whereas the utility only declared P26.51 billion in its financial statements.
A representative of Meralco declined to comment on the case ahead of the ERC’s official statement.
In a statement during the weekend, Nasecore thanked the Ombudsman for the decision, saying it “is long overdue justice for the consumers against ERC’s regulatory failure.”
The 14-page decision was dated May 18 and was signed by Cherry T. Bautista-Bolo, the Ombudsman’s graft investigation and prosecution officer. It was approved by Overall Deputy Ombudsman Melchor Arthur H. Carandang.
The commissioners were found guilty of simple neglect of duty and were ordered suspended for three months from the service without pay.
Nasecore said: “This is the second time the Ombudsman has ordered the suspension of the same ERC Commissioners, the first was in December of last year ‘for conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service aggravated by simple misconduct and simple neglect of duty’ for allegedly excluding [Meralco] and other firms from a competitive selection process (CSP) meant to ‘elicit the best price’ for consumers.”
It cited the Ombudsman’s finding that the commissioners “continuously refrain from strictly implementing rules defining the nature of BDs (bill deposits) as ‘mere guarantee in payment of bills’ which must be returned upon termination of the DUs’ (distribution utility’s) service.”
Nasecore also pointed to the decision that said the commissioners “failed to issue rules or policies such as creation of a separate escrow account to avoid commingling of BDs with the capital or operational expenses of [Meralco] or any DU for that matter. They tolerated the use of BDs as [Meralco’s] capital without the benefit of a reasonable return of interest to accrue yearly to consumers.”
During the weekend, Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian, the chairman of the Senate energy committee, weighed in on the case, saying the ERC “was created to safeguard the rights and welfare of power consumers, who would otherwise be defenseless against unfair, anti-competitive, and outright anti-consumer practices of powerful, well-moneyed energy industry players — a perfect example of which is the outrageous misuse of bill deposits by distribution utilities.”
“Unfortunately, instead of standing up for the consumers, the ERC allowed an energy industry titan to appropriate billions of pesos worth of consumer deposits for its own corporate purposes. This is absolutely unacceptable,” he added.
“What is even more unacceptable is the fact that this is the second time within the past seven months that the Ombudsman has found the ERC commissioners administratively liable for failing to fulfill their duty to protect the interests of the consumers. Quite frankly, it’s an embarrassment,” he said.
He said there is an urgent need to implement sweeping reforms that will restore the institutional integrity of the ERC and rebuild the public confidence in it “that has been virtually eliminated by the never-ending list of recent scandals.”
He said as chairman of the Senate committee on energy, he would fast-track the passage of the ERC Governance Act, which he described as “a pivotal piece of energy legislation which seeks to accomplish the needed reforms by deconcentrating power.” — with C.A. Tadalan