Judge rejects Meralco bid to quash estafa case

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — The Manila Electric Co. has lost its bid to stop the Justice Department from hearing the syndicated estafa complaint filed against the utility firm by consumers’ group National Association of Electricity Consumers for Reforms.

Judge Maryann Corpus Manalac of the Makati Regional Trial Court dismissed Meralco’s petition, saying it was filed in the wrong venue.

Meralco should have filed the case before the trial court of Manila, which has territorial jurisdiction over the department, whose main office is based in Manila, Manalac said.

“It is undisputed that the questioned acts pertained to that of the respondent officers of the DoJ in Manila. The City of Manila is not within this court’s territorial jurisdiction as defined by the Supreme Court. As correctly argued by the respondents, thus, this court is not the proper venue for the instant petition,” the court explained.

On May 29, Nasecore filed before the Justice Department a syndicated estafa complaint against the Lopez-controlled Meralco for using P889 million of its customers’ refundable money.

The case stemmed from a ruling by the Energy Regulatory Commission ordering Meralco to return the 10-percent meter and bill deposits of its consumers. The complainants said the money should have been put in a trust fund.

Named respondents were Meralco chief executive Manuel Lopez and members of the company’s board of directors.

“It’s a triumph of justice, paving the way for the prosecution of Meralco for declaring as income part of the interests earned by the meter and bill deposits of its customers,” Nasecore president Pete Ilagan said in a statement.

In its petition, Meralco alleged that the Justice Department committed “grave abuse of discretion” when it allowed Nasecore to file its complaint without the payment of the necessary filing fees while at the same time requiring the accused Meralco officials to submit their counter-affidavits on or before July 25.

Meralco stressed that the non-payment of legal fees will deprive the government of the uncollected legal fees of P8,886,000.

On the issue of jurisdiction, the court said Meralco’s lawyers erred in claiming that they can file the case in Makati just because Manila and Makati belong to the same judicial region.

Ilagan said his group viewed the court decision as a “significant step” toward making Meralco accountable criminally and civilly for the misuse of its customers’ refundable money.

Ilagan explained that the court decision meant that the June 2 decision of Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez will stay. That decision suspended the payment by Nasecore of legal fees and allowed the docketing of its complaint against Meralco.

Justice Department Order 376 dated June 11 creating a panel of investigators to conduct a preliminary investigation, as well as the subpoena issued by that the department’s panel on Meralco had also been sustained, Ilagan said.