Czech energy regulator urged to resign following jail sentencing

Czech energy regulator urged to resign following jail sentencing
ERO's efforts to snub out generous state subsidies for solar power plants have angered many.
By David Binar in Prague February 23, 2016

Lobbyists, NGOs and analysts have called for the chairwoman of the Czech Energy Regulatory Office (ERO), Alena Vitaskova, to resign after she was handed a long jail sentence.

Vitaskova was handed 8.5 years on February 22 after being found guilty for her failure to retract the licences of two solar power plants. Eight other individuals were convicted for participating in the scam to secure state subsidies, which, according to the court, may end up costing the taxpayer CZK2bn (€74mn) over the course of the 20 years for which subsidies are granted.

Vitaskova immediately announced she will appeal the verdict, which procured a sentence that surprised many by its length. With her highly confrontation approach the regulator has made many enemies as she has battled to ease the burden on taxpayers from the overly generous state incentives scheme on solar power. The high subidies were scrapped several months before she took office.

Minister of Industry Jan Mladek has been her highest profile critic, but many in a power business that leapt on the subsidies scheme - including state-controlled giant CEZ - clearly have an interest in seeing the back of her. The regulator has fought a series of charges over her conduct in office over the past couple of years. However, it appears the business lobby may now have achieved its goal.

Vitaskova pledged as she came into the role four years ago she would "clean the solar business," and has filed around 120 complaints to prosecutors against issued licenses. Some of those licenses have been retracted.

However, the verdict says Vitaskova failed to pull the licences of two projects that were registered with ERO just hours before the incentives for solar power were slashed on January 1, 2011, and were not operational at the time. Critics note that the projects were run by figures close to one of her deputies.

The verdict and sentence may not be the main point of the case. Under the new law on the civil service, public officials must be reaffirmed in their positions by March 1. On the other hand, some speculate that Vitaskova could remain in office based on the Czech energy act, which grants ERO independence. In that case, only the president Milos Zeman would be able to remove her from office, but he has said several times that he will not sack the watchdog.

Representatives of the Czech Photovoltaic Association, the Solar Association, and the Alliance for Energy Self-sufficiency, as well as two non-governmental organizations - Glopolis and Hnuti duha - agree that the court case has harmed ERO's reputation. The trade associations suggested Vitaskova resign, at least on moral grounds.