Power Firm Threatens Cutoff for Top Officials, Executives

A power firm in the far eastern Primorye region on Tuesday accused nearly 150 senior officials and company executives of stealing electricity and threatened to cut off their supply if they did not pay their bills in a month.

The owners of 149 large villas in suburbs of Vladivostok, Ussuriisk and Artyom will face power cutoffs over 2.8 million rubles ($119,000) in estimated payments due because they refused to install electricity meters, Unified Energy System subsidiary Dalenergosbyt said in a statement.

By law, people who illegally connect to the electricity network can find themselves behind bars, as the theft of electricity is punishable by up to two years in prison.

Dalenergosbyt did not publish the names of those accused, but sources familiar with the situation said they included top officials in the regional government and in city administrations and senior executives in the region's traditionally murky forestry and fishing industries.

"We had no other choice but to fight the electricity thieves who build their houses for several million rubles, yet don't want to pay a few thousand" for electricity, Dalenergosbyt spokeswoman Olesya Shaklina said by telephone. "The villa owners get connected to the local power grid without paying a kopek but refuse to install the meters. Or they install fake meters that don't count anything at all."

Shaklina added, however, that the company didn't expect the cases to get to court, "as these high-profile people don't want their reputations spoiled."

Dalenergosbyt said it had some success in fighting nonpayment over the last 2 1/2 years, with the company's economic security service collecting 3 million rubles ($127,000) in 2006 and 4 million rubles in 2007.

To get the money, the company said it organized police raids and took some nonpayers to court. In August, the company acquired electric scanners that can detect hidden wiring used to circumvent its meters.

"Electricity theft is quite widespread across the country," UES spokeswoman Tatyana Milyayeva said Tuesday. "The poorest people steal electricity for obvious reasons, while the wealthy do it because their multistory villas with various gadgets eat up a lot of power, which can cost quite a lot, depending on the region."