“How to screw consumers” – this may very well be the legacy that embattled ERC Chairman Jose Vicente Salazar will leave behind at the powerful regulatory body.
Already infamous for his midnight deals with FDC Misamis Corporation, or those 7 contracts that he unilaterally approved last January which would have bullied Mindanao residents into buying expensive electricity from FDC without them knowing it, Salazar is at it again with the much-awaited but highly-technical Meralco refund.
Let’s backtrack a bit. If you take a look at the fine print of your electric bill, you will find a breakdown of your payables couched in fancy jargon that almost seems deliberately designed for obfuscation. You are charged for costs like “lifeline rate” and “systems loss,” and even if you don’t really understand what these are, you pay whatever the bill says you owe.
In the case of Meralco, it turns out that it had been overcharging its own customers for lifeline rates, systems losses, generation rates, transmission rates, and for heaven’s sake, even the senior citizen’s discount, for three whole years!
From 2014 to 2016, Meralco amassed almost Seven Billion Pesos worth of its consumers’ money, money which these poor customers could have used to pay for legitimate bills, tuition, food, groceries, and other daily needs.
Fast-track to March 31, 2017, when Meralco had to finally disclose these overcharges to the ERC. In April, the Commission began a painstaking review of voluminous documents, computations, and verifications to properly adjudicate the refund, in line with its mandate of protecting consumers.
When you’re talking about three years’ worth of records and 7 billion pesos worth of people’s money, you follow the process to a tee, right? No shortcuts, no shenanigans, you just roll up your sleeves and put in some serious work. After all, this is about consumer welfare, and nothing else.
Or so we thought.
For Salazar, this was not so much about consumers as it was for his publicity. In the refund, the insecure Chairman did not see justice for overcharged customers, but rather an opportunity to make himself look good.
The proof? We all know by now that Malacañang placed Salazar under preventive suspension on May 2nd, as a result of his illegal dealings such as the FDC contracts. But instead of complying with the suspension order, Salazar issued a last-minute press release on May 3, trumpeting to the public that he had purportedly approved the Meralco refund.
And there lies Salazar’s sabotage. You see, once a government official is suspended, he is prohibited from performing his regular functions. He cannot sign an order, for instance, and doing so would mean that the order is invalid, illegal even.
By unilaterally signing the Meralco refund without the Commission having approved it first, Salazar was seeking public sympathy to take some heat off from his well-deserved suspension. But it’s one thing to mask your insecurities, and it’s another thing to do it at the expense of consumers.
Had the Commission not rescued the illegal order and issued a valid one in its place on May 15, Salazar would have been able to thwart the refund by issuing a lemon – an illegal order from the very beginning, which would have surely been nullified by the courts eventually.
In the end, Salazar would have been able to sabotage the refund, and at the same time, look at the mirror and feel good about himself.