Monday, June 23, 2014


Weekly Opinion Editorial

By Steve Fair

     In 1989, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission voted on a proposal for Southwestern Bell Telephone to refund $30 million to their Oklahoma customers.   The overcharges resulted when the corporate income tax in Oklahoma was reduced by 25%.  Back in 1989, the members of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission were Jim Townsend, a former state legislator and three term member of the commission, Bob Hopkins, another former state legislator, and newly elected Commissioner Bob Anthony, a department store executive who had served as an OKC city council member for a decade.  Anthony was the only Republican.  The phone company argued that refunding the money to the customers wasn’t necessary and instead proposed they upgrade their infrastructure instead.  The vote was 2-1 to not refund back to the customers with Anthony casting the lone nay vote.
     Anthony, who had been approached by the lobbyist for Southwestern Bell and offered a bribe to vote their way, went to the FBI and told them of the possible corruption at the Commission.  He wore a wire and both the lobbyist for Southwestern Bell and Hopkins went to jail.  For his efforts, Bob Anthony was awarded the FBI’s highest civilian award.  Anthony continues to serve as a Corporation Commissioner.  He won his fifth six year term in 2012. 
     In 1992, when the members of the Commission were Cody Graves, J.C. Watts, and Anthony, they voted unanimously that the actual overcharge to Oklahomans by Southwestern Bell in 1989 was $100 million dollars, not $30 million.  As to why the $100 million wasn’t refunded at that time is the $64 dollar question, but it wasn’t.  Instead the phone company was once again allowed to keep the ‘excess revenue.’
     Last week, two Oklahoma consumers- Sody Clements, the Mayor of Nichols Hills, and Richard Burpee, the former commander of Tinker AFB- filed a $14 billion dollar lawsuit on behalf of Oklahoma Southwestern Bell customers.  The suit states the ruling by the Commission in 1989 was null and void because Hopkins had taken a bribe for his vote.  They believe the phone giant (now AT&T) owes Oklahomans billions of dollars, after interest, and should be held accountable.   “Although the facts in this case may seem complex, it is really just about doing the right thing for the customers in Oklahoma,” Clements says. 
     Clements, who served as Anthony’s Executive Assistant for two years after his election, is a close friend of the Commissioner.  Burpee is also a close friend of Anthony.  Basically, Burpee and Clements want a do-over vote by the current Commission.  They want the 1989 ruling to be declared unconstitutional and voided.  "If you were in a murder trial and found out that one of jurors had been bribed, they would throw the verdict out," Clements said. 
     AT&T obviously doesn’t agree.  According to Marty Richter, an AT&T spokesperson, "This issue has been thoroughly reviewed and resolved numerous times by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. This should be a closed issue." Three observations:
     First, this only involves land lines.  It doesn’t involve cellular phones.  So if you didn’t have a land line in 1989 in Oklahoma, this suit doesn’t involve you.
      Second, determining who is entitled to the refund will be difficult.  Many of those land line customers from 1989 have moved or died.  Locating those who were overcharged will be a difficult task, but it should be attempted.  With compound interest AT&T will owe many Oklahoma consumers over $1,000.   
     Third, this suit reveals a larger problem.  Oklahomans have no way of knowing how much they have been overcharged for utilities through the years.  How many millions of dollars were Oklahomans overcharged by utility providers in the years before 1990 because some corrupt politician was brought off?  There shouldn’t be a statue of limitations on overcharging rate payers.  Why can’t other decisions that were made by previous commissions be revisited?  The legislature should take the initiative to investigate.  Contact your legislator and ask them to support such action.  Public corruption, fraud and consumer overcharging shouldn’t just result in a short jail sentence- it should result in giving the money back to those who were overcharged.
     The Corporation Commission bribery scandal resulted in the obvious overcharge of every Oklahoman with a Southwestern Bell land line telephone in 1989.  It should be finally resolved.  I want MY money back, with interest!

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