MANILA, March 22, 2004  (STAR) By Marvin Sy - This is no laughing matter.

Network giant ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp. rejected claims by the Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino that it has axed the sitcom of the country’s top comedian, Dolphy, for supporting KNP bet Fernando Poe Jr., President Arroyo’s main opposition rival in the May polls.

"The network believes that some are maliciously injecting politics into a purely show business issue. And that is most unfair because there is a deliberate attempt to capitalize on the issue for their own benefit," it said in a statement issued yesterday.

"The management of ABS-CBN has always respected, as it continues to respect the right of its employees and talents to choose whichever candidate they may wish to support and vote in the coming elections," the statement said.

It said it "never and will never exert any undue influence on its employees’ or talents’ right to choose which candidates running for either national or local posts they may wish to support this May elections."

ABS-CBN neither confirmed nor denied reports that it had pulled the plug on "Home along da Airport" but it "acknowledges that there was indeed a preliminary discussion between the management and Dolphy about his program."

"However, the discussions are matters private to both ABS-CBN and Dolphy," the network said. "ABS-CBN leaves it to the discretion of the artist whether to disclose the matters or portions thereof."

The 75-year-old Dolphy — Rodolfo Quizon in real life — has made no comment.

The STAR tried to reach him but he was not immediately available. A source in the entertainment industry said he was in an undisclosed provincial resort.

Dolphy’s common law wife Zsa Zsa Padilla is unaware of the developments. Nene Riego, a friend of the couple, said Padilla declined a lunch invitation to celebrate for winning a best actress award the other day.

Mrs. Arroyo denied having anything to do with the reported cancellation of the show about a lower middle class family that lives near the airport.

The KNP charges that Mrs. Arroyo has struck a deal with the Lopez business clan, which controls ABS-CBN, to help her win a fresh term in exchange for favors.

"Certainly not, I don’t even know that he has a show," Mrs. Arroyo told a press briefing on the Dolphy sitcom, a take-off from the hugely successful "Home along da Riles."

"As far as the internal affairs of the station is concerned, I think they should be the ones to explain this," Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said in a Malacañang interview. "They have a reason why it resulted in this way, but it’s up to them to explain."

The local entertainment industry was reportedly outraged by the show’s cancellation.

"It’s obvious someone powerful wanted to cut down FPJ’s candidacy so Dolphy’s show was axed," said actor Richard Gomez, a Poe ally. "It’s (an) open secret that the administration has been bothered by Dolphy’s show of support for Mr. Poe so his head was offered to appease the gods of Malacañang."

Gomez said the show was doing well in the ratings. "The show is making money. Its ad load is the envy of other shows. So why cancel it?"

Poe himself, however, remained cautious. "I advised my colleagues to calm down and relax until after we get the entire picture," he told reporters during a campaign stop in Davao City.

The latest KNP allegations came at the heels of a compromise settlement between the government and another Lopez-controlled firm, Maynilad Water Services Inc., which supplies water to the western half of Metro Manila and nearby provinces.

Maynilad returned its concession in 2002 because government regulator Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System allegedly reneged on its contract obligations, particularly to allow the utility to raise water rates.

Under the settlement, the government will take over the water supply service from Maynilad.

The utility’s parent company, Benpres Holdings Corp., will write off its $80-million investment in Maynilad. In addition, the MWSS will get $50 million in cash up front from Maynilad and paid $5.5 million a month in concession fees for the next 12 months.

The KNP claims the compromise settlement was a "sweetheart deal" with the Lopez clan in exchange for convincing Sen. Noli de Castro to run as Mrs. Arroyo’s vice presidential running mate in the May polls, a charge Malacañang denies.

"The criticisms being thrown against this deal are politically motivated. Maybe they want to prevent the delivery of water services to the people so that they could blame the administration," Bunye said.

De Castro was formerly a popular ABS-CBN radio and television news anchor. He denies the allegation. The KNP says De Castro was enlisted to help Mrs. Arroyo’s presidential bid, which is facing a strong challenge from Poe because of his iconic movie star popularity despite his lack of public office experience.

The Lopez clan leads a multibillion-dollar business empire that includes Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), the country’s top power distributor.

They also have interests in power generation, telecommunications, construction, property, and technology.

Lopez businesses have been on the wrong end of regulators’ rulings.

Meralco, a Benpres unit, was slapped in the 1990s by the Energy Regulatory Board (the predecessor of the Energy Regulatory Commission) with a P30-billion customer refund order for alleged overbilling.

Maynilad won the 25-year concession from the MWSS in 1997. Aside from supplying water, it was also required to modernize, improve and expand the city’s antiquated water system in that period.

Maynilad terminated its concession contract in 2002, complaining the government failed to honor its commitments, particularly to raise water rates so the utility could pay its financial obligations and stay in operation.

The government disputed Maynilad’s complaints, prompting both sides to seek international arbitration. The panel of arbiters suggested that both sides reach a settlement to prevent the issue from dragging on. — With Maridol Bismark 

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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