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AT&T Bribed Okla. Regulator to Keep Excess Revenue, But State Still Won’t Seek $16 Billion in Refunds

Phillip Dampier March 21, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video No Comments

AT&T successfully bribed a Oklahoma telecom regulator to allow the phone company to keep at least $30 million annually in excess revenue. Despite the fact two key players in the bribery scandal were eventually sent to federal prison, Oklahoma’s state government has done all it can to protect AT&T. At issue is up to $16 billion in refunds and damages payable by AT&T — approximately $15,000 per customer, that the state claims would not be in the public interest. Now a consumer group — Oklahomans Against Bribery — is taking its case for refunds to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Remarkably, AT&T has remained so confident of its case and close relationship with Oklahoma state officials, the company drew gasps in a 2015 hearing after its attorney argued even bribed votes count at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC), the state’s telecommunications regulator, and the Commission has no jurisdiction to tell AT&T to make things right with Oklahoma ratepayers.

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission: “Perjury Palace”

The notorious scandal began with the passage of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 during the Reagan Administration. Echoing recent tax changes passed during the Trump Administration, Republicans argued that reduced taxes would cut the burden on corporations by changing the way those taxes were calculated, with savings trickling down to individual taxpayers. Under Oklahoma law, when a regulated utility wins a tax break, so should ratepayers in the form of lower rates. In June, 1987 the OCC ordered utilities including Southwestern Bell Telephone Company (today doing business as AT&T) to be prepared to refund the excess revenue that came as a result of the tax cut.

Only AT&T had no serious intention of refunding the money to its customers. Investigators claimed the company’s senior Oklahoma executives conspired with at least one of their attorneys to bribe Corporation Commissioner Bob Hopkins with a $10,000 payment in return for his vote allowing AT&T to “invest” the excess money in network upgrades. AT&T got its wish in a 2-1 vote. For almost 30 years, the lone dissenter in that vote, Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony, has led the charge to reopen the case and get consumers a long overdue refund.

In 1988, when he was running for a seat on the Corporation Commission, Anthony said he was warned he would not be a good fit.

“A friend and Crowe and Dunlevy attorney advised me that someone like me should not run for election to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, calling it the ‘perjury palace,'” Anthony wrote in a 2016 dissent opinion of the rate case.

Even before Anthony won his seat on the Commission, the bribery attempts began, often involving a high-powered utility lawyer named William Anderson, hired by SBC/AT&T:

“My first introduction to this entire episode was in about the last six weeks of my campaign….I was sent word that some people wanted to meet me. Well, I was running a campaign so I was happy to meet people interested.

“So, I went over to Mr. [William] Anderson’s office, and we had a nice chat. He’s…an authority on utility regulation. We had a nice little chat, and he handed me an envelope, and I put it in my pocket. And I remember driving home, not at the first stop light, but at the second stop light, I opened up the envelope and there were 10 $100 dollar bills in it, with a little slip of paper in one person’s handwriting that had five names written on it. Now, I was supposed to assume that that was five people [who] contributed $200 apiece, and that I didn’t have to report it by name.

“I told this story to a high school friend of mine who just happened to be the U.S. Attorney at the time. And before I told him the name of the person, he said, ‘Was that Bill Anderson?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s who that was.’ And he said, ‘Well, Bob, we’ve been interested in his activities for a long period of time, but it’s awfully difficult to get inside information.’ And I said, ‘If he continues to have dealings with me, I’ll keep you posted.'”

It wasn’t long before Anthony associated Anderson’s presence with pocketfuls of cash waiting to fall on the table:

“I remember the time he had 50 $100 dollar bills. And I said, ‘You know I grew up in the business world, and we counted money when it came in.’ And so he’d chuckle, and then I’d start counting it out, 1-2-3-4, and then it would get up to 45-46-47-48-49-50! And, uh, he had a funny little thing he’d like to say,…’Well, if there was one extra, I’d a’ jumped up there and grabbed it.’ And we’d chuckle about that.

“Then he’d go on and explain about what was expected for the money. The definition of bribery, out of Black’s Law Dictionary, includes a quid pro quo. If he just gives me a gift that’s not necessarily a bribe. But, if he does, like he did, say, ‘You know, these companies I represent, they expect to make a profit. They expect to be in business a long time. And we’re not going to bother you every day, but someday there will be some officer of one of the companies I represent, and we’ll need an appointment, and we’d expect for you to give us an appointment.’

“Well, a certain amount of this is a wink and a nod, too. But, there was no doubt in our minds what was going on. Very clearly what was happening was people were giving me a large number of hundred dollar bills because they were buying access, and they were buying influence. And those words were even used in conversations that I had with utility executives.

“So my high school friend arranged for me to meet him in his US Attorney’s office, and there were two top FBI agents from the city who were there. And I agreed to keep them informed if activities continued.

“And Mr. Anderson called, and he called again, and he wanted to establish a relationship. And eventually they got recording equipment put in my office, and he continued his activity.”

Anthony recounted how utility lobbyists and lawyers introduced themselves, almost always around the issue of money.

“You know, sometimes I get money for the commissioners,” one lawyer told Anthony, adding some lawyers and lobbyists frequently offer $300 or $400 in “walking around money.” Those lobbying Anthony also reminded him they were aware of his campaign deficit, and despite being illegal, one offered to bundle a $10,000 contribution to help retire his debt.

The SBC/AT&T Bribery Case

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh (right) presenting Commissioner Anthony (left) with the Louis E. Peters Memorial Service Award in 1995. (Image courtesy: Bob Anthony)

The prospect of AT&T getting to keep at least $30 million in excess revenue a year (later revised upwards in an independent audit to $120 million annually) meant going the extra mile with commissioners to assure a vote in AT&T’s favor. By this time, Anthony had volunteered to serve as a FBI informant and had turned over any money he received improperly to the government. Federal investigators also obtained wiretap warrants, which caught telephone company executives discussing the bribe they didn’t want to know about.

“Do it and don’t let me know how you do it,” Oklahoma SBC/AT&T division president Royce Caldwell is heard saying on one wiretap.

Anthony argues there is substantial evidence that AT&T’s bribery is only a part of a much broader conspiracy involving a variety of utilities who were routinely bribing regulators to win votes at the OCC. But the AT&T case was special because of the amount of money involved.

“Multiple executives and attorneys were involved,” he said. A judge that later reviewed the case called the money given to Anthony, “no more or no less than an effort to have him look with favor on their pending rate matters.”

Other executives named by Anthony in the case were David Miller, SBC’s vice president in Oklahoma for governmental and regulation affairs and SBC attorneys William Free and Glen Glass.

In a sworn affidavit, Anthony cited a FBI wiretapped conversation between Anderson and Free in which Anderson said, “[Glen] Glass knew the whole deal. We all knew. They all knew we were trying to work something.”

What they apparently knew is that their attorney, Mr. Anderson, had found OCC Commissioner Robert Hopkins, a grateful recipient of $10,000 in telephone company bribe money, and the critical second vote in favor of AT&T being allowed to keep its excess revenue.

In 1994, a federal grand jury indicted Anderson and Hopkins for illegal bribery and conspiracy charges. Both were found guilty in late 1994 and sentenced to federal prison.

The Bribery Worked: AT&T Still Benefits Today from Rigged Vote That Was Never Overturned

Pruitt

Despite convictions, jail time, and clear and convincing evidence of a corrupted regulatory process, the order granting AT&T permission to keep the money was never overturned, despite repeated efforts by Anthony to throw out the tainted vote.

Since the late 1980s, AT&T has collected an estimated $16 billion in excess charges from Oklahoma ratepayers, including interest. But every effort to see that money returned to Oklahoma consumers and businesses has met a roadblock of resistance from AT&T, the Oklahoma state government, and regulatory agencies who call the case “ancient history” and “closed for further debate.”

The most serious effort to overturn the OCC’s original vote came in 2015-2016, when a coalition of consumers, business leaders, and philanthropists teamed up to convince the OCC and the courts they should toss out the tainted vote. They ran head-on into then Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (today the head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Trump Administration.)

Pruitt had been a staunch defender and supporter of AT&T in his role as Attorney General. In 2014, shortly after Pruitt dismissed another challenge about excess revenue in favor of AT&T, the phone company and its executives richly rewarded Pruitt’s campaign coffers with $43,500 — 44.5% of all donations for the summer and fall 2014 period. Pruitt ran unopposed in 2014.

Pruitt’s office renewed opposition to those challenging AT&T once again in 2015:

The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office has maintained the position that the PUD 260 matter should not be reopened for nearly 20 years. As Attorney General Drew Edmondson stated to the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 1997, and again in 2010, “[t]he public interest would not be served by reopening an evidentiary hearing occurring nearly [two] decade[s] ago. The resources of the Commission and of the parties could be better utilized than by rehashing ‘ancient history.’ Accordingly, a rehearing of this cause is not in the best interests of [Southwestern Bell Telephone]’s customers and is not advocated by the Attorney General.”

Independent news site NonDoc took issue with Pruitt’s premise:

How can Pruitt expect his position on PUD 260 to ring true with the public considering his lengthy and documented history of defending major corporate interests in Oklahoma?

For a politician so well-versed in the art of pandering — whose campaign website asks voters to “Help Scott protect the citizens of Oklahoma” — how does the potential reimbursement of an estimated $15,000 for every qualifying AT&T customer in the state not serve their “best interests?”

Whose best interest is really protected by refusing to re-examine a corrupt moment in Oklahoma’s political history?

The answer likely lies somewhere in the political realities of our time. When corporations are considered people, it’s corporate dollars that count, especially when most actual people can’t be bothered to get out and vote.

In 2016, the OCC dismissed yet another attempt to revisit the issue, this time with prejudice, telling the group and consumers across Oklahoma the issue cannot be litigated ever again.

Headed for the U.S. Supreme Court

After being uniformly rejected by Oklahoma’s conservative politicians and judiciary, the group of citizens fighting to get the original late 1980s ruling overturned and force refunds for customers is taking their case to the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

Oklahomans Against Bribery continues to believe the law is on their side, despite arguments from AT&T’s attorneys that even bribery-tainted votes count.

“We took on this fight when the Attorney General stopped representing Oklahoma ratepayers and started defending AT&T,” said bribery refund applicant and Nichols Hills Mayor Sody Clements. “We hoped the Corporation Commission and the Oklahoma Supreme Court would finally do the right thing – declare once and for all that bribed votes don’t count in this state, and give the billions stolen by AT&T back to the ratepayers.  Unfortunately everyone has passed the buck and claimed it’s someone else’s problem to fix. We believe the buck will stop at the United States Supreme Court.”

Their petition for writ of certiorari, filed March 19, argues their “right to petition” under the First Amendment was violated when the OCC dismissed their bribery refund application “with prejudice,” prohibiting them from ever raising the issue again.

“Denying citizens the right to further petition their legislative bodies on legislative matters – especially matters involving proven public corruption – threatens and undermines our very republican form of government,” the petition argues. “The high importance of this case to the public interest, both from a monetary standpoint and from the standpoint of harm done – now and in the future – to ‘the good order of society,’ warrants review.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the petition before the end of its term in early summer 2018.

Even bribed votes still count at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, argues AT&T’s attorneys. This overview looks at the AT&T Bribery Case still on appeal. (5:46)







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