POSTSCRIPT / December 22, 2005 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Napocor mafia plotting Meralco takeover also?

RIGHT CHOICE: As many observers of the judiciary expected, Associate Justice Artemio V. Panganiban was chosen Chief Justice of the Supreme Court this week. He took his oath yesterday.

The transition was as brief and definitive as a minute resolution of the tribunal on a matter where legal consensus exists. Everything considered, especially the current reformist drift in the high court, Panganiban was the best choice.

We can understand the possible disappointment of Associate Justice Reynato Puno, who joined the court ahead of Panganiban and is therefore chronologically senior.

But as everybody must concede, seniority is just one of the core criteria — and it is not, as some quarters imagine, a “time-honored tradition.” Historical facts cited in my POSTSCRIPT of Dec. 11 show that half of our 20 Chief Justices since 1901 were not the most senior at the time they were appointed.

More important than the personalities involved is the interest of the institution itself. It is essential that the Supreme Court remain intact, together with its venerable justices, whenever there is internal rustle or some external bustle disturbing it.

There is no need to belabor this basic point. Surely, Justice Puno knows that the institution must remain solid and unsullied until the time comes in less than a year from now for him to succeed to the chief justiceship.

Hail to the new Chief Justice, and to his Successor-in-Waiting!

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STRESSED OUT: I have a confession to make. Because of the forced buildup toward a “Merry Christmas” on the 25th, I find December the most miserable, most stressful, month.

I am amazed at those who claim to find joy and comfort in the “silent night, holy night” of Christmas. I should envy them, but I don’t.

I am just rattled by the excessive rushing about and the resulting lost motion, the incessant demand on, and corresponding expectation from, kith and kin, the mismatch of earnings of several months and the overspending of a few days.

I am appalled by the hypocrisy and commercialism marking relationships brought to the fore by Christmas.

Then there is the social pressure of having to attend parties that we would normally not bother with were they not organized in the compelling name of Christmas. For certain individuals caught in mixups, there is the need to be in two different places at the same time. That could be stressful.

If Jesus were to be born again and return to this world he left to spin by itself 2000 years ago, he could be repelled — like he was at the temple taken over by vendors — by the materialism that has replaced the goodwill that the angels proclaimed on that night of his birth.

I would not be surprised if statistics show that December has the most number of suicides, runaways, drunkenness, and a growing host of miserable people asking what is this big to-do about a Christmas.

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MERALCO TAKEOVER: A reporter came upon a memorandum, one of several on power rates, for the government to convert disputed obligations of Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) into equity and his paper trumpets to the world that Malacanang wants to take over the power firm.

Immediately, the careful reader spots the quantum leap between a mere suggestion, one of many, and an allegedly serious plan of government.

Mercifully, not everybody took the banner story seriously. But the Meralco spokesman had to take time off his gift-wrapping for the news media and — like reactive Malacanang — had to produce a statement because he was being badgered to react to the banner story.

The idea was crazy, but there it was begging to be massaged into a credible story.

Imagine sticky government hands taking over the reins of a multi-billion-peso business like the Meralco. Government operators cannot even straighten the books of the National Power Corp., and now they would overreach to grab the crown jewels of the Lopez dynasty?

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POWER & PESO: It seems that the advocates of government takeover of Meralco do not have reduced power rates in mind but simply power, period. Power and peso, to complete the description.

If the focus of the exercise is power rates, the Energy Regulatory Commission is the more appropriate entity to study the issues and then hand down more authoritative rulings. The ERC must be involved in settling a contract dispute between Meralco and Napocor.

The operators who have plundered Napocor to near-bankruptcy have lost their credibility and their right to manage any government-controlled corporation or agency. They should be barred from coming within 100 miles of Meralco.

After 10 years of mismanagement and corruption, they have succeeded only in undermining service and burying Napocor in P600 billion in debts. Now Malacanang is being asked to allow them to take over Meralco?

Like Sen. Joker Arroyo, many of us are wondering why Malacanang continues to cover up for the corruption and mismanagement in Napocor.

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MAFIA BLAMED: In peddling a story as big as a government takeover of a business giant, a responsible newspaper must make it clear to the readers where that story came from.

The paper cannot hide behind some hazy “sources,” otherwise the conclusion would be that the newspaper owners and/or it editors are in on the plot presumably for material reasons.

The scuttlebutt in the industry is that the author of the takeover proposal is a member of the so-called Mafia in Napocor. This is the same gang repeatedly accused of milking Napocor and burying it into penury.

The same group is being accused of sabotaging efforts to privatize Napocor under a law providing for its sale to private investors.

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DEBT DISPUTED: It is interesting that the price of Meralco shares dropped after the memo leaked out over the alleged plan to convert to government equity the alleged P42-billion debt of Meralco. (The power distribution firm is disputing owing the amount.)

The figure represents the cost of power that Meralco had committed to buy from Napocor since 2001 under the terms of a Contract for the Sale of Electricity (CSE) signed in November 2004.

While the Lopez family and its corporations control the biggest bloc of Meralco shares at 35.77 percent, the firm actually has many owners. The government, for one, controls 15.23 percent of Meralco through the SSS, LBP, HDMF and PHIC.

Meralco’s books do not reflect any liability arising from the CSE. Its financial statements say that in the event of a dispute arising from the contract, the remedy for both parties is arbitration. Stock conversion, as suggested in the news report, is not an option.

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AQUINO REJOINDER: From the third district of Pampanga came a rejoinder of Rep. Rey B. Aquino to a discussion here of political issues in the province.

He disputed claims that he left the coffers of San Fernando City, the capital, practically empty when he stepped down as mayor and that he has been bad-mouthing incumbent Mayor Oscar Rodriguez.

His letter (edited) said in part: “It is not true that the city was emptied of its coffers that Rodriguez so discovered upon his assumption of office in 2004. I left more than P10 million cash in the bank, about P110 million in Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) from July to December 2004, six-month income from business permit fees and six-month income from real property taxes.

“Based on official report from the Commission on Audit, there was some P38 million surplus cash at the end of 2004.

“The city government had three supplemental budget from July to December 2004 under the new administration, to wit: Ordinance No. 2004-001 for P21,374,000; Ordinance No. 2004-002 for P12,406,000; and Ordinance No. 2004-003 for P10,269,000.

The other allegation that I filled up all vacancies at City Hall is also false. I only filled up certain positions as required by the reorganization of the bureaucracy after San Fernando converted into a component city in 2001. More than 40 positions were still available for filling up when I left in 2004. The city government also had 900 employees at that time. Today, that number has ballooned to about 2,000.

“As for the minor issues of discrediting the new mayor’s so-called achievement for winning fourth place in the World City Mayor Search for 2005 or claiming that he rode on my own, I leave those to good people of San Fernando who are the better judge, ultimately. That is the dynamics of democracy anyway, and it is best to leave it at that.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 22, 2005)

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