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Former Head of Ajit Pai’s Broadband Group Arrested by FBI on Fraud Charges

Phillip Dampier April 16, 2018 Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband, Video No Comments

Pierce (Image courtesy of: KTUU-TV)

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s choice to lead his newly created Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) was arrested last week by the FBI and charged with a multimillion-dollar investment fraud scheme.

Elizabeth Pierce, former CEO of Quintillion and ex-chair of the BDAC from its start until September, 2017 surrendered to authorities in New York City. Pierce was charged with wire fraud for allegedly tricking investors into putting more than $250 million into an Alaskan fiber optic project based on guaranteed revenue contracts prosecutors claimed Pierce forged herself to reassure investors Quintillion would benefit from telecom traffic revenue the fiber network never had.

To realize her plan to build a fiber optic system that would service Alaska and connect it to the lower 48 states, Pierce convinced two investment companies that she had secured signed contracts that would supposedly generate hundreds of millions of dollars in guaranteed future revenue from the system,” said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman. “Those sales agreements were worthless because the customers had not signed them. Pierce had forged counterparty signatures on contract after contract.”

To raise adequate funds to support Quintillion’s ambitious fiber optic network buildout, Pierce frequently appealed to outside investors. Several wanted evidence the fiber network would attract enough business from telecom companies to justify an investment. Pierce was accused of faking contracts with Alaska’s telecommunications companies from 2015 until 2017 to provide reassurance companies were committed to spend at least $24 million in traffic charges the first year the network began operation.

Pierce’s alleged scheme fell apart when Quintillion began invoicing clients based on the fake contracts. At least one protested, claiming it did not use Quintillion’s network. A subsequent internal investigation allegedly founds dozens of phony contracts kept in Pierce’s Google Drive account, with at least 78 moved to the service’s trash bin 48 hours before investigators began searching Pierce’s computer. Prosecutors were able to recover the deleted documents with a search warrant presented to Google.

Pierce may have attracted FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s attention after publicly complaining the permitting process in Alaska took longer than building fiber cables from scratch and shipping them from Europe. Out of more than 380 applicants, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai picked Pierce in 2017 to head his new broadband advisory committee, tasked with eliminating or streamlining regulations and making life easier for broadband providers to persuade them to expand broadband rollouts.

“The Commission was fortunate to have an excellent and deep pool of applicants to serve on the BDAC,” Chairman Pai noted on the occasion of introducing the BDAC and Pierce to the public. Critics argue Pai’s BDAC has been stacked with industry, industry-funded or industry-friendly committee members that are influencing most of the public policy recommendations issued in the group’s final recommendations. At least two city officials resigned over concerns their views were not being taken seriously.

Pierce resigned from Quintillion in August 2017 and from the BDAC a month later for  “personal reasons.”

KTUU-TV in Anchorage reports Quintillion’s ex-CEO was charged with wire fraud. Nevertheless, the Alaskan fiber project is trying to carry on. (3:11)

Charter Sues El Centro, Calif. for Interfering With Its Blackout of Local TV Stations in Contract Dispute

Charter Communications is taking the city of El Centro, Calif., to federal court for interfering in a dispute between Spectrum and a local TV station owner that has resulted in two stations being blacked out on the local cable system for nearly three months.

Northwest Broadcasting, Inc., has been in a contract extension dispute with Charter Communications over multiple stations, including its two El Centro-area affiliates KYMA (NBC) and KWST (CBS). Charter accuses Northwest of gouging, claiming “Northwest demanded an 80 percent increase in carriage fees, more than double the rate Charter pays any other broadcaster anywhere else in the entire country.”

On March 7, 2018, the City of El Centro got involved and cited the cable operator, alleging Charter violated five provisions of Article X of the City Code, and began fining the cable company $100 a day for each violation, assessed each day the dispute continues.

El Centro accuses Charter of:

  • Discriminating against subscribers based on specific protected classes;
  • Failure to notify the city and subscribers 30 days in advance of any changes to cable service or rates;
  • Failure to establish a time frame to respond to service interruptions;
  • Failure to refund customers for service interruptions exceeding a stated period;
  • Failure to notify the city and subscribers 30 days in advance of any changes to the cable television channel lineup.

El Centro Mayor Sheryl Viegas Walker: “I’m taking it to the streets. I’m so fed up with [Spectrum’s] disregard for this community,” KYMA in El Centro reports. (3:02)

Northwest Broadcasting CEO Brian W. Brady strongly disputes Charter’s claims, dismissing them as “lies,” particularly surrounding the removal of two El Centro stations from Charter’s lineup after the cable company claimed Northwest refused permission to continue carrying the stations while renewal talks continued.

“Charter accepted the first two extensions which were offered to them, however, they refused the third extension and took our stations off with 10 minutes notice,” Brady said.

Charter’s lawsuit argues El Centro officials have no right to intervene in the dispute, force Spectrum to put the stations back on the lineup, or require Charter to issue refunds to customers for channels that are no longer available to them.

“Northwest’s pulling its authorization for Charter to carry its broadcast signals is not a ‘service interruption’ within the meaning of the City Code provisions in question,” Charter argued in its lawsuit. “Even if it were, while El Centro demands that Charter ‘cure’ its alleged violations, the only means for Charter to do so is to finalize a retransmission agreement with Northwest. The City’s citations are thus intended to pressure Charter to accept Northwest’s unreasonable terms by imposing fines and intentionally damaging Charter’s reputation and harming its goodwill and relationships with its existing and prospective customers.”

Charter argued giving refunds to customers over the lost channels was “contrary to Charter’s terms of service, and in so doing improperly interfere [sic] with Charter’s contractual relationship with its customers.”

Charter is relying heavily on California’s statewide video franchise law — the 2006 Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act (DIVCA), heavily pushed by telecom lobbyists a decade ago, which stripped most local authority over cable systems and transferred it to the state government. Charter is using DIVCA’s light touch regulations to support its assertion El Centro officials cannot interfere in programming disputes and that their actions during the dispute have only made things worse.

“The effect of the City’s actions has been to harden Northwest’s negotiating position and make a deal on reasonable terms even more difficult,” the complaint says.

“I have never seen a corporate entity act with such disregard for our community,” said El Centro Mayor Sheryl Viegas Walker. “We have a contract with them that spells out certain steps that they’re required to take if those kinds of changes are going to be made. They didn’t do that. We wake up one morning and we’re suddenly without two major channels.”

“Rather than negotiating in good faith like all other parties would do and what the law requires, Charter has taken a ‘take it or leave it’ approach,” added Brady. “In an effort this week to get this back on track, Northwest submitted a new proposal to Spectrum. Spectrum’s representative communicated that they really wanted to get this resolved, but would not counter Northwest’s proposal and would not respond at all in writing. Odd behavior for a company that claims to be negotiating in good faith. It appears that Charter would rather bully a small municipality than to engage in a good faith negotiation.”

It appears other small cities are joining Brady’s cause, complaining to the Federal Communications Commission that Charter was unfairly profiting from station blackouts. In Crescent City, Calif., city officials accused Charter of charging a Broadcast TV surcharge of $7.50-8.85/month, but didn’t change or adjust rates after the Northwest Broadcasting blackout began.

“Despite the fact the fee is itemized and justified as a pass-through, Charter did not eliminate or reduce that fee, even though it was no longer incurring costs associated with carriage of … at least two network affiliates,” Crescent City officials told the FCC.

The two California cities have also been joined by officials in Yuma, Ariz. and Jackson, Wyo., where Charter has removed Northwest Broadcasting stations as well.

“We have learned that it is no different for numerous municipalities which have been forced to sue Charter to collect the fees that are contractually owed to them,” Brady said. “Most disputes are settled because Charter uses their army of lawyers to outspend the municipalities forcing the municipality to settle on Charter’s terms, regardless of their contractual obligations. It’s no different for their customers who have told us that Charter recently raised the broadcast surcharge fee in spite of the fact that the programs they want to watch are unavailable because Charter removed the programming. Many have asked for refunds only to be told no. What is the customer to do, sue Charter?”

Northwest Broadcasting Owned and/or Operated Television Stations

City of license / Market Station Channel
TV (RF)
Owned since Affiliation
Yuma, Arizona – El Centro, California KYMA-DT 11 (11) 2014 NBC
KSWT 13 (13) 2014 CBS
Estrella TV (DT3)
Eureka, California KJRW 17 (17) 2016 CBS
Pocatello – Idaho Falls, Idaho KPVI-DT 6 (23) 2016 NBC
Decades (DT2)
Movies! (DT3)
Greenville – Greenwood, Mississippi WABG-TV 6 (32) 2016 ABC
Fox (DT2)
WFXW 15 (15) 2016 Silent/Unused
WNBD-LD 33 (33) 2016 NBC
WXVT-LD 17 (17) 2017 CBS
Binghamton, New York WICZ-TV 40 (8) 1997 Fox
WBPN-LP 10 (40.2) 2000 MyNetworkTV
Syracuse, New York WSYT 68 (19) 2013 Fox
Cozi TV (DT2)
WNYS-TV 43 (44) 2013 MyNetworkTV
GetTV (DT2)
Medford, Oregon KMVU-DT 26 (26) 1995 Fox
MeTV (DT2)
KMCW-LD 14 2013 Sonlife
KFBI-LD 48 (48) 2013 MyNetworkTV
Telemundo (DT2)
Spokane, Washington KAYU-TV 28 (28) 1995 Fox
Antenna TV (DT2)
Tri-Cities – Yakima, Washington KFFX-TV 11 (11) 1999 Fox
Telemundo (DT2)
KCYU-LD
(Semi-satellite of KFFX-TV)
41 (41) 1995 Fox
Telemundo (DT2)

KPVI-TV in Pocatello, Ida. was widely seen in parts of Wyoming over Charter Communications until the station was blacked out in a contract dispute. Now viewers want to see Charter fined. (1:11)

Charter officials claim there was insufficient time to notify subscribers about the loss of Northwest Broadcasting stations from the TV lineup, but Jackson, Wyo., officials noted Charter bought a new domain name reflecting the contract dispute at least two weeks before stations like KPVI were blacked out. (1:02)

Jackson city officials question a Charter representative about refunds for customers paying surcharges for broadcast TV stations no longer on Charter’s lineup. (0:57)

How to File a Petition on this Issue with the Federal Communications Commission:

This petition allows for public comment until April 16, but the FCC requires some special steps for individuals wishing to file comment. Below is a list of the requirements to file a public comment with the FCC regarding Charter Communications:

  • Members of the public who wish to comment should do so on or before April 16, 2018.
  • Filing should be submitted to the FCC via the electronic comment filing system (ECFS).
    • That system is accessible at https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filings.
    • A member of the public should type his or her comments and save them.
    • At the top of the ECFS page, select standard filing and in the “proceedings” box, type 18-91 (the proceeding is MB Docket No. 18-91).
    • Fill out the remainder of the boxes with information that is required (some information is optional).
    • At the end of the form, there is a box where saved comments can be uploaded.
  • Comments that contain statements of fact (for example, “Here is what happened to me”) should be supported by an affidavit.
  • “Comments or oppositions shall be served on the petitioner and on all persons listed in petitioner’s certificate of service…” The petitioners here are the Cities, and the certificate of service is at the end of the communities’ filing, which can be downloaded from https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filing/1032236683943.

Renting? You May Lose “Free” Spectrum Cable TV Over Contract Disputes

Phillip Dampier March 28, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Competition, Consumer News, Video 1 Comment

No TV for you until you sign here.

Charter Communications is asking owners of apartment complexes, nursing homes, independent living/assisted care residences, and hotel and motel owners to sign new agreements allowing Spectrum to lock owners into a 10-year contract that includes a provision allowing retroactive rate increases and a requirement to turn over personal information on every resident to the cable company.

A number of apartment complexes bundle “free cable TV” into the lease as a selling point for renters. Others pay a discounted rate that is part of a resident’s monthly rent payment or service fee. These agreements are part of the murky world of “bulk service contracts” for cable service, and disputes between a property owner and Spectrum can cause the loss of cable service for every resident without warning.

Most of the disputes involve apartment complexes, assisted-living facilities, and hotels/motels formerly served by Time Warner Cable. Most are still under relatively short-term contracts with Time Warner Cable, which was acquired in 2016 by Charter Communications. Good Shepherd Fairview Nursing Home in Binghamton, N.Y. and Good Shepherd Communities, a senior living center in Endwell, N.Y., are good examples.

Mike Keenan has been involved in long-term senior care for 30 years, and over that time he has negotiated hundreds of contracts. But as WICZ in Binghamton reports, nothing prepared him for dealing with Spectrum and Charter Communications.

Good Shepherd Village is a senior living center in Endwell, N.Y.

Charter is using its ongoing digital conversion program as a tool to force “bulk contract” holders to sign new agreements with Charter Communications, often replacing still-valid contracts with Time Warner Cable. Many are not happy about the new terms Charter is offering, particularly one that locks them in with Spectrum service for the next decade and another that allows the cable company to raise rates retroactively.

Those unwilling to sign new contracts have been threatened with service being shut off, usually as digital conversion and TV signal encryption reaches their area, which requires new equipment to keep watching. Those complex owners that still refuse to sign are required to share each tenant’s personal details and address with the cable company.

“Spectrum had taken the position that even though we had a contract in force until December 2018 that we needed to sign a new contract immediately,” said Keenan, president and CEO of Good Shepherd Communities. “If not, they threatened that we would lose service at our Good Shepherd Fairview in Binghamton location and our Good Shepherd Villages at our Endwell location.”

Charter was true to its word. Efforts to negotiate obtaining digital adapters or set-top boxes under the old Time Warner Cable contract failed and with no warning, all 161 nursing home residents at Good Shepherd Fairview lost their cable television on Feb. 27. Two weeks later, 264 residents at Good Shepherd Village — the senior living center — also lost their television and internet service.

The loss was devastating to residents, especially at the nursing home.

“Many of the residents are frail, some of them may be bedridden and their TV means everything to them,” Keenan said.

Keenan’s contract with Time Warner Cable was still valid, and its terms made it clear as long as Good Shepherd kept their payments current, they were owed service that Charter ultimately took away from hundreds of residents.

Apartment complex owners around the country are reviewing new contracts from Charter Communications and many are dropping “free cable TV” after decades of offering the service as an amenity included in the rent. Many who are ending their contracts believe a growing number of tenants neither need or want traditional cable service.

The deal-breaker for many is Charter’s insistence on offering a bulk discount only if the entire building signs up for service, which means owners will have to pay out-of-pocket for Spectrum service in vacant units or in apartments where the tenant has service with another provider.

WICZ in Binghamton, N.Y. reports Charter Communications used nursing home residents as pawns to force the hand of a nursing home manager to sign a new Spectrum contract, even though the current one with Time Warner Cable has not expired. (3:11)

Keenan

“Let’s say you’re paying for Spectrum” – the brand name for Charter’s service – “for 100 percent of the units,” attorney Tara Snow, a partner at Novitt, Sahr & Snow, told Habitat. “You may have 90 or 95 percent of the apartments signing up, but you always have some units that don’t.”

That leaves someone on the hook, either tenants or the property owner, to pay for cable service that nobody is watching. Under Time Warner Cable just a few years ago, the cable company would pay a co-op, condo association, or apartment owner an upfront cash bonus and ongoing “revenue-share fees” for getting a majority of residents — but not all — to sign up for service. It also allowed the company to market holdouts door to door.

No such luck with Charter, which wants to be paid for every unit no matter who is at home. For property owners staying loyal to Spectrum, some are absorbing the extra costs while others pass them on to tenants as part of their rent or monthly maintenance/service surcharges. A few are trying cost sharing arrangements that divide up the total bill equally among all tenants. But as younger renters move in and increasingly show no interest in cable television, the dwindling number who have cable are paying more and more to cover those that don’t.

“People are cord-cutting,” says Brian Scally, vice president of Garthchester Realty, a management firm. “Most people who still want cable want to select their own cable/internet/telephone provider.”

Of the 64 properties he manages, Scally told Habitat fewer than a dozen have signed up for a bulk rate, and those deals were signed years ago.

“I haven’t brought anybody new to bulk rate,” he says.

The other deal breaker for many is Spectrum’s 10-year contract, which locks owners in with a cable company a lot of tenants despise.

As a result, a growing number of apartment complexes and condos are terminating their bulk cable contracts as they expire, and have no intention of renewing under Charter’s draconian terms. Affected tenants are informed the “free” cable television they were receiving is ending and they should make individual arrangements with Spectrum to maintain service going forward.

Hotel and motel owners are also finding fault with Charter Communications, and some are taking their disputes to the Federal Communications Commission.

Yvonne Peach, who owns the Historic Coronado Motor Hotel in Yuma, Ariz., says dealing with Charter has been a nightmare since the merger.

After Charter converted commercial Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers to Spectrum plans and pricing, she lost service to all of her motel rooms for more than a week.

Historic Coronado Motor Hotel – Yuma, Ariz. (Image courtesy of owner)

“When they did the change over we didn’t have any cable TV in the hotel for 12 days,” Peach told KYMA-TV.

Spectrum advised her best solution would be to install leased set-top boxes in the hotel’s 126 rooms, a solution she claims caused even more problems. It seems Spectrum’s equipment doesn’t appreciate Yuma’s southwest Arizona heat, and the boxes regularly fail when air conditioning is switched off in unoccupied rooms.

“We’ve had over 100 of them replaced probably in the last I don’t how many months,” she said. “It’s a box that if the room isn’t rented every night it becomes deactivated.”

Those paying to stay in the motel are not happy to reach their rooms and find the television isn’t working either.

“We’ve lost thousands of dollars with people that would move out because of no TV in their room,” Peach said. “It comes and it will say dial an 800 number or something. But you know the guest. They are paying a certain amount for the room and they’re not going to call.”

KYMA-TV in Yuma, Ariz. reports Charter told this hotel owner her cable boxes were not working because they are not being kept air-conditioned. (2:29)

Spectrum ignores her complaints, she claims, transferring her from call center to call center in search of a solution. She finally took her complaint to the FCC, something she does not think should be required after paying the company $1,600 a month for cable television.

In response, Spectrum blamed the lack of air conditioning for its box failures, in addition to the “relocation of the digital adapters by hotel staff, which are dedicated to a particular room on the account.”

In other words, if you move equipment between hotel rooms, Spectrum claims that equipment will deauthorize. Spectrum effectively wants motel guests placed in rooms where their cable equipment is still functioning, preferably where air conditioning is left running.

“If you’ve been driving all day and you get in your pajamas and you’re ready for bed and you’re watching TV and the TV doesn’t work, do you want to move to another room without complaining? No, nobody does,” said Peach.

In upstate New York, heat isn’t a significant problem, but having a bulk account representative in Rochester, 2.5 hours away by car from Binghamton is. The representative did not understand Binghamton and Endwell are two different communities about seven miles apart.

“This whole thing could have been avoided,” Keenan said. He called the New York Public Service Commission to complain and within a day multiple Spectrum trucks arrived loaded with set-top boxes — one per residence, potentially finally resolving the dispute, but not the bad feelings that emerged as a result.

“Time Warner Cable was saying ‘we need our customers,’” Keenan said. “The experience I have had with Spectrum is Spectrum is saying ‘you need me.’”

WICZ-TV follows up the next day with this report explaining why it is important to stay wary of cable companies offering long contracts. (1:09)

Capped Comcast Customers Play Columbo to Identify Data Hogging Services

Nathan Gray woke up one morning this month and received an alarming notification from Comcast, his internet provider, claiming he had exceeded his Comcast terabyte data cap and was being billed an additional $10 for a 50 GB allotment of extra data.

“This has never happened before and I was only six days into my monthly billing cycle, so I assumed it must be a mistake,” Gray told Stop the Cap! “But Comcast told me it wasn’t a mistake.”

Gray was hardly alone. One month earlier, “Bogreenwoo” discovered his family had blown the roof off their internet usage, exceeding 1 TB by the middle of the billing cycle, with more usage piling up hour after hour.

“Xfinity was adding 50 GB blocks every day at $10 each and calls to tech support were no help,” he shared on Comcast’s customer support forum.

Similar complaints are brought up on that forum at least weekly, if not more often. Comcast counterclaims that usage exceeding 1 TB a month is so rare, it represents only about 1% of its customer base. But customers with huge internet bills from Comcast who stumble their way to the company’s support forum strongly dispute that notion.

“Well good luck with finding a solution or even finding anyone at Comcast who cares or anyone anywhere else as far as that goes,” shared “Amaasing.” “I have had this issue more than once and have talked with every vice president of customer service and had discussions with the security department and even filed a complaint with the FCC and nothing happened at all.”

Some users, like Amaasing, have received so many bills stung with overlimit fees they now turn their computers off in the evening and unplug their cable modems. In many cases the usage keeps rising anyway.

“Today when I logged in, I had apparently used 196 GB yesterday,” Amaasing wrote. “196 GB in 24 hours?  Seriously?”

For most customers in this predicament, Comcast is quick to blame customers for the usage and leave the detective work up to them. Customer support will not entertain suggestions their usage meter is inaccurate. In their view, it is more likely someone is illicitly connected to your Wi-Fi and stealing your service or you are running some bandwidth-heavy application or your computer has been hijacked by hackers or pirates.

While you are left to investigate which of these might be true, Comcast is free to continue billing your account overlimit fees.

Comcast claims it will forgive customers who exceed their data allowance twice ‘a year’:

“We’ll provide you with two courtesy months, so you will not be billed the first two times you exceed a terabyte while you are getting used to the new data usage plan. This means that you will only be subject to overage charges if you use more than a terabyte for a third time in a 12-month period. If you use more than a terabyte two times or less in a 12-month period, your courtesy month balance will reset to two at the end of these 12 months. However, if you use more than a terabyte three times in a 12-month period, no more courtesy months will be given.”

After “courtesy months” expire, you are on the hook for whatever excess usage Comcast determines you have consumed. Some Comcast customers assume the courtesy month counter resets each calendar year, but in fact it only resets after 12 consecutive months of staying within your allowance limit.

What causes “excess usage” is anyone’s guess. Comcast customers have documented several recent causes why they have mysteriously started blowing through their 1 TB data allowance:

  1. The growing prevalence of 4K video, the highest streaming video quality available through online video streaming services can be responsible for a sudden spike of usage. Netflix and other services that support 4K video content with high dynamic range can eat up 7 GB to 10 GB of data per hour. Many services allow you to downgrade your video settings with minimal quality loss. We recommend trying settings typically labeled 720 or 1080 — the lower the better if you are running up against your allowance.
  2. Third party backup and cloud storage tools: That online backup or cloud storage service you are using may be malfunctioning. There are several reports about Amazon Drive having problems recently, causing files to be repeatedly transferred and driving up usage to several hundred gigabytes a day in some cases. If you use Amazon Drive and have seen a huge spike in usage, try uninstalling or turning off the service for several days and see if usage falls dramatically. Other file and computer backup services that store your data in the cloud can consume a lot of data, especially when installing them on a new computer for the first time. Even some cell phone backup services designed to store your photos in the cloud can malfunction and repeatedly try to send the same photos over and over. Disable these tools for several days and check your usage levels.
  3. Third party usage: Family members doing something bandwidth intensive can also be responsible for dramatic usage spikes. Although downloading video game updates can consume very large amounts of data, game play itself typically has little impact on your data usage. Check with family members to see if they are watching high bandwidth video or have installed a file backup service. Less common is an uninvited guest on your Wi-Fi network. Comcast often points to Wi-Fi security as a major problem when a neighbor gains access to your internet connection to download huge numbers of files. You can change your Wi-Fi password to help lock down your network. Make sure not to use plain word passwords — use a mixture of letters, numbers, and symbols.
  4. Comcast’s meter is simply inaccurate. There is no independent third-party verification or government oversight of Comcast’s usage meter. Most ISPs hire a third-party contractor to design and implement their data measurement meters, but those contractors are ultimately answerable to the provider — not to you, giving little peace of mind to consumers who are forced to trust their cable company to be honest. Our country’s Founding Fathers placed great importance on accurate measuring and weighing tools, so much so it is addressed in Section VIII of Article I of the U.S. Constitution. That section gives authority to Congress to establish accurate and regulated measurement tools. Each state has their own way of managing this, often with a bureau of weights and measurements that independently verifies and certifies — with a tamper-evident sticker, the accuracy of the food scale at your local grocer or the gas pump at a nearby service station. Comcast has resisted similar third-party oversight for its usage meter. But considering the company’s overlimit fees can add a substantial sum to customer bills, having this kind of oversight seems appropriate.

Avoiding the usage cap: Comcast ironically provides its own insurance plan to protect customers from its own arbitrary data allowance. For peace of mind, Comcast collects an extra $50 a month ($20 for gigabit speed DOCSIS 3.1 plans) if you wish to waive the data cap altogether. Data caps are completely under the control of Comcast and are especially prevalent in regions of the country where a lack of competition exists. But Comcast’s arguments in favor of data caps don’t wash at the nation’s second largest cable company – Charter Communications, which markets its internet service as having no data caps at all. In fact, Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge never saw much use for data caps at Charter or Cablevision, the company he used to head.

Debunking arguments for usage caps at Comcast and other ISPs. (5:46)

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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