House to set aside ERC 2017 budget, execs warned

By Gerry Baldo,
Charlie V. Manalo
and Angie M. Rosales

Should officials of the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) cling to their posts and defy President Rodrigo Duterte’s order, the House of Representatives will be forced to set aside its budget for 2017.
“The Joint Congressional Power Commission (JCPC) should exercise its oversight powers to ensure the proper implementation of the Electric Power Industry Act by convening before the approval of P3.35-trillion national budget to look into President Duterte’s wish to give the ERC a zero budget due to corruption allegations by the late ERC Director (Francisco) Villa (Jr.),” partylist Rep. Jericho Nograles yesterday said.
Duterte earlier ordered the resignation of all ERC officials following the death of Villa last November 9.
Some ERC commissioners, however, said they would not resign as such a move would not be in the best interest of the quasi-judicial body.
Villa, the agency’s bid and awards committee head, reportedly left behind suicide notes indicating he was pressured to approve procurement contracts and the hiring of consultants without resorting to standard government bid procedures.
The ERC is an independent, quasi-judicial regulatory body and was created as mandated by the Section 38 of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) of 2001.
“To abolish the ERC, we will need to amend the Epira Law. Congress is ready to respond to the President’s call for the ERC abolition, but JCPC should convene first,” Nograles pointed out.He added the JCPC could also exercise its oversight powers to reorganize the agency or remove ERC officials led by its chairman and chief executive officer Jose Vicente Salazar.

At the same time, Nograles appealed to Salazar and the other members of the ERC Board to spare the commission from further disgrace and embarrassment by voluntarily stepping down from their posts.
They should also spare ordinary ERC employees the agony of losing their jobs in the event that Congress decides to abolish the ERC for their refusal to resign from their present positions.
While Nograles said Villa failed to present any proof to support his claims which could help the Office of the Ombudsman pursue charges against rogue ERC officials, they have already lost public trust and confidence and  anything that they do will be viewed with suspicion.
“I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt but this issue is no longer a question of their innocence or guilt. As far as I am concerned, they are no longer effective in carrying out the mandate of their office. It’s like being on a sinking boat and the only way to save every one else is for them to jump overboard. They should at least think about the plight of the other ERC employees who would lose their jobs if the entire commission is dissolved,” Nograles stressed.
He said without the President’s support and without any budget to support their operations, the ERC would not be able to effectively carry out its mandate as an independent power industry regulator.
Citizens Battle Against Corruption Rep. Sherwin Tugna, for his part, said Congress should pry into the agency first before its abolition or setting aside its budget.
“There should be a proper investigation first. The entity ERC, as it is, is a functioning and a needed regulatory agency. We should separate the entity from the persons occupying it,” he stressed.
“After due hearing and in the event that it is proved that there is corruption, we should remove (top rank ERC officials) and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law,” Tugna added.
At the upper chamber, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian advised Salazar to take a leave of absence to pave the way for an impartial investigation on the allegations of corruption and on case surrounding the death of Villa.
“My personal view is to make the investigation being conducted by the NBI (National Bureau of Investigation), CoA (Commission on Audit) and other institutions faster. This is also to relieve the pressure from the institution. I think out of delicadeza, (Salazar should) take a leave (of absence),” Gatchalian said in an interview in Davao City after attending an electric summit.
He expressed belief that the agency head should step down temporarily and not resign from his post.
“This is just for the investigation and nothing has been proved yet,” the senator, who is the chair of the Senate energy committee, said.
Gatchalian would not recommend the same move to the rest of ERC officials, saying the allegations are very specific to a certain person, that is Salazar and for practical purposes, the work at the agency will be affected if there’s no one manning it.
“I think to relieve and insulate the institution from the negative public perception, I think it’s noble for him to take a leave for now and allow the investigation and inquiry to happen and then let’s see what happens,” Gatchalian said.
The senator was also candid in admitting that he does not share the position of the President on abolishing the ERC and create a new agency.
“This is a very complicated industry... I think the best case here is to put up a task force and create a timeline and find out what really happened,” he said.