ERC strife shows in House inquiry
Internal discord within the ranks of the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) came to light during Tuesday’s congressional inquiry into the death of ERC Director Francisco Villa Jr., who killed himself last year allegedly over pressure to approve rigged contracts.
Four ERC commissioners spoke of a “cloud of mistrust and fear” hovering over the agency as they grappled with allegations of corruption in the fallout that followed Villa’s suicide, which prompted President Duterte to call for their resignation in November last year.
At certain points during the half-day public hearing, the four commissioners appeared to gang up on ERC Chair and CEO Jose Vicente Salazar, accusing him of conflict of interest and having demanded a stop to an internal inquiry into alleged corruption in the agency.
Commissioner Josefina Asirit said Salazar had “demanded” that an internal investigation of Villa’s death be stopped, considering that parallel probes were already being conducted by the House, Senate and National Bureau of Investigation.
Another commissioner, Gloria Victoria Yap-Taruc, turned emotional during her testimony. She recalled Salazar asking her: “Are you crucifying me?”
“My impression is it has become very unhealthy in the ERC. The atmosphere, among the commissioners, sometimes it has become untenable. There’s a lot of mistrust, a lot of intrigue,” said Commissioner Geronimo Sta. Ana.
Commissioner Alfredo Non said he and his three colleagues were determined to push through with their own investigation despite Salazar’s objections. “We could not ignore our moral obligation to protect the image of a colleague who killed himself,” he said.
Non said he was disappointed with Salazar for not taking any action to protect the other commissioners.
“All of us are being put in the same light. In terms of questioning, only one person is actually under fire. We did not say anything. We did not accuse the office of the chair, but at the same of time, people come to us. This is something we could not ignore,” he said.
The House committees on good governance and on energy began the joint investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death of Villa, the brother of journalist Charie Villa, who left three suicide notes two and a-half months before he took his own life last Nov. 9.
In one of the notes, Villa expressed concern that he might be called out by the Commission on Audit (COA) over an ERC infomercial project that he said Salazar “chose through a rigged bidding selection process.”
That project went to Salazar’s friend, Luis Morelos, an advertising executive, who was also named in the note.
Salazar admitted that Morelos was his friend and that it was he who initially brought in Morelos for the project after two failed bidding.
But Salazar said he was advised by the bids and awards committee that there should be bidding under procurement rules. Thus, Morelos had served only in a “personal capacity.”
A COA investigation has found that the audio-visual project did not push through.
A report, signed by State Auditor Vivencio Quiambao Jr. and Supervising Auditor Flovita Felipe, said the project “was not consummated” and that no payments were made. It did not mention any “rigging” in the selection process for the project supplier.
“Mr. Morales is a friend of mine, so it was easy for me to convince him to provide support for the agency. But Republic Act No. 9184 did not allow it,” Salazar said, referring to the procurement law.
He admitted that he was getting “impatient” to start the conceptualization and filming of the infomercial, as the outgoing chair of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board, Eugenio Villareal, with whom the ERC had an agreement for the showing of the infomercial in theaters, was about to retire.
“It was the obligation of Jun Villa to procure. I was getting impatient. So I asked, ‘Do you have someone in mind?’ There was pressure on us,” Salazar said.