There’s trouble at the Energy Regulatory Commission, the quasi-judicial watchdog tasked with guarding the government’s and the people’s interest in the trillion-peso power industry. And it’s being caused by the head of that controversial agency, an Aquino administration holdover who seems hell-bent not only on staying in his post but also on keeping a tight lid on things so that shady deals supposedly entered into during his term never come to light.
But ERC Chairman (on leave) Jose Vicente Salazar is encountering all kinds of resistance from the members of the commission and from staff officers down to the director level as he tries desperately to hang on to his post and cover his tracks. Salazar’s critics in the agency are of the belief that the chairman is the cause of the agency’s woes and that President Rodrigo Duterte’s call to deny funding for the ERC or to abolish it altogether for alleged corruption was largely the result of Salazar’s mismanagement.
Salazar, who went on leave after Duterte’s rantings against ERC, called a meeting of the commission last Monday where he laid out his plan to his disbelieving colleagues. During the meeting, Salazar laid out his proposals for the commission to withstand the threat posed by the angry occupant of Malacañang, who is being stymied by the fixed terms enjoyed by the chairman and his four commissioners.
First, Salazar said he was ordering a stop to the internal investigation being conducted by the agency on the apparent suicide of Director Francisco Villa Jr., who alleged in suicide notes he left to his family that he was forced by Salazar to approve deals as head of the ERC bids and awards committee that were illegal. The suicide of Villa early last month led to calls for an investigation by various agencies, including Congress, which in turn led to Duterte’s charges of widespread corruption in the agency and Salazar’s going on leave.
Second, Salazar said he wanted the commission to impose a gag order on all of its officials, to be lifted only upon his direct say-so. No one was authorized to speak for the agency, according to the chairman, unless he expressly authorized it.
Third, Salazar disclosed that he had ordered the shredding of various documents in the agency’s possession. He told the commissioners that the order to destroy documents was already being carried out by his office, which also runs the agency because Salazar is not only chairman but CEO and administrator of ERC as well.
At that point, all hell broke loose inside the boardroom. And for good reason.
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The commissioners said Salazar had no call to order them to cooperate with his planned coverup and told him so. One of them even said that they had no problem with Duterte’s demand to expose corruption in the agency, since any investigation would exonerate them, just as surely as it would incriminate Salazar.
After the stormy meeting, the commissioners sought the support of staff officers and other key personnel in the agency and agreed on a plan to ask Congress to start an immediate investigation of the suspicious goings-on at the ERC. (The commissioners ruled out resigning themselves, as Duterte had demanded, because they would lose their generous retirement benefits, which the law had pegged at the level of retiring Supreme Court justices.)
The anti-Salazar commissioners and officers vowed to cooperate with any independent investigation by Congress or any other body, in defiance of Salazar’s directives. Even if Congress is about to go on its official Christmas vacation, they urged lawmakers to conduct a probe by the appropriate committees (which can still conduct hearings during the break), because of the urgent need to protect documents and other evidence that Salazar has allegedly started to destroy.
The disgruntled ERC officials said they could prove to Congress and to Duterte that various deals Salazar entered into on behalf of the commission that were tainted with corruption. And they promised that all the evidence will bolster Villa’s allegations and eventually lead directly to the office of Salazar.
Salazar, 46, a lawyer and a member of the influential Sigma Rho fraternity of the University of the Philippines College of Law, was appointed in August last year by then President Noynoy Aquino. He was a former justice undersecretary and board member of the state-owned Public Sector Assets and Liabilities Management Corp. and is serving a seven-year term that ends in 2022.
The embattled ERC chairman replaced Zenaida Ducut, an appointee and province-mate of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Salazar is believed to be a close adviser of both Aquino and his powerful executive secretary, Paquito “Jojo” Ochoa, and a protege of his Sigma Rho “brother,” Senator Franklin Drilon.
Before going on leave in the wake of the Villa suicide and Duterte’s attacks on the commission, Salazar sought a one-on-one meeting with the President, supposedly to explain the side of the ERC in the controversy. Duterte has ignored Salazar’s request for a meeting but has so far not renewed his calls for the entire commission to resign and for the abolition of the agency.