power and water

Beneco operations, workers’ welfare at risk as NEA appointee corners funds

Sherwin de Vera
Beneco operations, workers’ welfare at risk as NEA appointee corners funds

BARRICADE. Beneco employees set up a barricade at the headquarters entrance in August 2021 to protest a takeover attempt by National Electrification Authority (NEA)- appointed general manager Ana Maria Rafael

Sherwin de Vera

(1st UPDATE) The freezing of some Beneco accounts also includes the employees’ retirement fund

VIGAN CITY — For 40 years, Blandina Ancheta worked as a teller for the Benguet Electric Cooperative (Beneco). In her last years of service, the cooperative’s leadership controversy erupted. Now, besides the heavier workload at the collection center, she also worries about her retirement benefits.

Workers’ welfare and the operation of the Beneco are under threat as banks freeze and allow “unauthorized withdrawals,” and allow changes to the signatories of the electric utility’s accounts, according to Beneco Employees Labor Union (BELU) president Jefferd Monang

The problem is an offshoot of the leadership dispute between the National Electrification Administration (NEA)-designated general manager Ana Maria Rafael and Melchor Licoben, whom the cooperative’s Board of Directors (BOD) appointed.

“This has affected us psychologically, creating fear … for the stability of our employment. Our future plans for our families were put on hold due to uncertainties,” teller Laarni Ilagan shared with Rappler on January 4.

She said collection centers and collectors have been working overtime since Beneco halted payment through banks that had stopped honoring the signatures of Licoben and BOD chair Esteban Somngi.

Monang said the union works closely with the administrators to address the concerns and identify spending priorities.

“The regularity of our payroll was not affected. We used different ways to credit the payroll since the bank refused to do it in the normal way,” he said in an online interview on January 3.

The BELU president explained that instead of the usual automatic crediting from the Beneco account, the management now deposits salaries to the personal accounts of almost 300 employees.

“We received our usual benefits for the year, except for the bonus that we get as a top-performing electric cooperative, Monang said. “ The action of the banks affected the key performance indices.”

“However, benefits like rice allowance and monetized leaves were delayed for days, with some reaching months, and had to be scheduled after all power suppliers were fully paid,” Monang added.

Battle for banks

After NEA and Rafael’s camp failed to sustain their armed takeover of the Beneco headquarters last October, the fight for the control of the electric cooperative shifted to its bank accounts. 

Before the takeover, NEA suspended members of the BOD who opposed Rafael’s appointment, including Licoben. However, the cooperative’s general assembly rejected the suspension and affirmed Licoben as general manager.

In November, the electric cooperative suspended the payments for its services to the Bank of Philippine Islands (BPI), Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP), Land Bank of the Philippines (Landbank), Metrobank, Philippine National Bank (PNB), and Rang-ay Bank. 

Beneco accounts in the said banks had either been frozen or closed, with several “unauthorized” withdrawals made, Licoben announced in a series of advisories.

In his December 27 advisory, Licoben explained that they suspended payment collection after Landbank and PNB changed the signatories and closed the accounts. 

DBP stopped honoring Licoben and BOD chair Esteban Somngi as signatories. Metrobank, Rang-ay, and BPI decided to freeze the funds. A seventh bank, Summit Bank, sought the court’s intervention by filing a declaratory relief.

Beneco Legal Officer Delmar Cariño said that, in general, the banks’ decisions would result in Beneco’s failure to settle its obligations.

“This would make us liable for criminal action by our suppliers and contractors…. (We) would also be in default [of payments from our power suppliers and NEA, incur interests, and penalties,” he explained.

He added that since their employees’ retirement fund was among those frozen, it also jeopardizes retiring Beneco workers’ welfare.

REINFORCEMENT. Meter reader Welsie Mayor on teller duty at the Maharlika outlet to augment personnel in the collections centers

“Unauthorized withdrawal”

The latest withdrawal is P58.6 million in funds earmarked for the Sitio Electrification Program, from Beneco’s account in the Landbank Marcos Highway branch on December 6. The money from the NEA would have subsidized the electrification of remote areas in Benguet.

Licoben wrote to Landbank Marcos Highway branch head Liza Melendez, asking for an explanation on the “unauthorized withdrawal.” He warned that the bank would also answer for any adverse audit findings.

On December 28, Rafael released an advisory assuring the public that the P58.6 million withdrawn from Landbank remains “intact.”

“NEA will not allow the subsidy to be misappropriated or withdrawn unless the projects shall have been fully implemented and the Sitios energized,” she said.

“We believe that every owner has the right to know transactions being entered into by the Cooperative; thus, we will regularly provide updates for MCOs on the outstanding loans and financial transactions of BENECO,” Rafael added.

Earlier, PNB Session Road also permitted the “unauthorized withdrawal” of Beneco funds, an action that is now the subject of a civil lawsuit.

In their complaint filed before the regional trial court, Licoben and Somngi said branch manager Ruth de Guzman Mateo permitted the withdrawal and fund transfer by Rafael of over P1.6 million between October 26 to November 11, 2021.

They charged Mateo of changing the signatories without notifying the existing account holders. The complaint also included PNB’s refusal to honor checks issued by Beneco as payments of its obligations, disrupting Beneco’s operation and exposing it to lawsuits.

Mateo told Rappler she is not authorized to speak on the matter and would forward questions to the bank’s public relations department.

PNB sent Rappler an text message on January 4 saying that, as a matter of policy, it does not talk about its customers and their transactions.

“We are fully cooperating with the government and now that there have been cases filed in the courts in Baguio, we are working with our legal team to respond to that,” the bank said.

“With the cases now filed [in court] the rule of sub judice now kicks in and this is why we would like to discuss further details in court,” PNB added.– Rappler.com

Sherwin de Vera is a Luzon-based journalist and an awardee of the Aries Rufo Fellowship