Ombudsman again suspends ERC commissioners

MANILA, Philippines – The Office of the Ombudsman again suspended 4 commissioners of the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) due to "neglect of duty," for tolerating the alleged misuse of bill deposits by the Manila Electric Company (Meralco).

Overall Deputy Ombudsman Melchor Arthur Carandang approved the recommendation of Graft Investigation and Prosecution Officer III Cherry Bautista Bolo to suspend ERC commissioners Alfredo Non, Gloria Victoria Yap Taruc, Josefina Patricia Asirit, and Geronimo Sta Ana for 3 months.

In a 14-page resolution dated May 18, the Ombudsman said the 4 commissioners failed to strictly implement rules on the nature of bill deposits as "mere guarantee in payment of bills" which must be returned upon termination of the distribution utilities service.

"Meralco treated the bill deposits as part of its capital without the benefit of a reasonable return of interest to accrue to consumers – a practice which respondents appeared to have acquiesced in," the resolution states.

The suspension order stemmed from a complaint filed by the National Association of Electricity Consumers for Reforms (Nasecore).

"In fact, without the letter of Nasecore, as represented by complainant herein, respondents will continue to ignore their mandate in promoting, safeguarding and protecting the interest of the public consumers by regulating, monitoring or checking Meralco's utilization of the bill deposits, at the very least," states the resolution.

According to Nasecore, consumers were allegedly robbed of about P34.84 billion. The group computed that consumers' deposits totaled about P61.36 billion from 2006 to 2016, while consumers' deposits amounted to only P26.5 billion in Meralco's financial statement.

Meralco had argued that it engaged in an accepted practice when it used bill deposits in its operations. But the Ombudsman said this did not mean the practice was legal or to the public's advantage.

ERC questioning ruling

The ERC on Sunday, June 17, questioned the Ombudsman's suspension order, saying that it has implemented regulations on bill deposits to protect the public.

"The basis of [the Ombudsman] case is the alleged inaction of the ERC on the bill deposit. I wish to inform you that there is no truth to that," said ERC lawyer Rolly Faller.

Faller added that they have filed a petition with the Court of Appeals (CA) for a temporary restraining order (TRO), and would also await word from Malacañang.

"Since the 4 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," he said.

The Ombudsman previously ordered the one-year suspension of the 4 ERC commissioners in December 2017 due to allegedly anomalous transactions involving Meralco. Back then, Malacañang said the suspension would lead to "paralysis" in the ERC.

However, the CA in February 2018 issued a 60-day TRO against the suspension order, followed by a preliminary injunction in April 2018, paving the way for the commissioners to return to their posts. – Rappler.com