The Maine Public Utilities Commission decided Monday to begin contempt proceedings against Verizon Communications for failing to affirm the truthfulness of statements the company made about its possible role in the government's warrantless surveillance program.
The three-member PUC voted unanimously to hold a hearing no later than Feb. 13 to determine whether Verizon is in contempt of its order.
"The public has a right to know if their privacy has been violated," said Chairman Kurt Adams.
In May, 22 consumers filed a complaint with the PUC to find out whether Verizon cooperated with the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping and data-mining programs described in news stories. Consumers in several other states have called for similar investigations since the Maine complaint was filed.
The Maine PUC has not opened an investigation. But in August, the commission ordered Verizon to affirm in writing that seven statements the company made in press releases are true and not misleading.
On the day of the deadline, Verizon told the PUC it would not submit such a sworn statement because the U.S. Justice Department was suing Maine to prevent the release of information.
The PUC's action Monday came as the commission faces a Feb. 7 deadline. State law gives the PUC nine months from the time a complaint is filed to initiate an investigation, although members said the PUC would not lose jurisdiction after that date passed.
But James "Doug" Cowie, the lead plaintiff in the complaint, disagreed with that position. A former PUC official, Cowie believes the commission must dismiss the case or open an investigation by then. Cowie wrote the PUC a letter earlier this month to remind members of the approaching deadline.
Cowie said the lack of action on an investigation is puzzling, but that he was glad the PUC took some action Monday.
"They have not asked Verizon one single question," he said. "At least they're doing something (today)."
Peter Reilly, Verizon's spokesman in Maine, said the company would not comment on the matter.
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said she was encouraged by the PUC's decision Monday, especially at a time when the federal suit is getting increasingly complicated. A judicial panel is considering transferring the Maine case and others about the surveillance program to California, a move opposed by states.
"The federal court was rapidly becoming a black hole, and Mainers still didn't have answers about whether their privacy was violated," Bellows said.
She said that although the PUC action falls short of opening an investigation, it's important that Verizon be held accountable for its statements to the media.
Since the Maine consumers filed their complaint, people in 24 other states have filed similar complaints with their utility regulators. The U.S. Justice Department has sued five states, including Maine, for looking into whether telecommunications companies provided information to the government programs.
MAY 8, 2006: Twenty-two phone service customers of Verizon
Communications file a complaint with the Maine Public Utilities
Commission to find out whether information about them has been turned
over to the National Security Agency as part of a domestic surveillance
MAY 19, 2006: Verizon responds to the complaint, saying it cannot confirm or deny any involvement in the NSA program.
AUG. 7, 2006: The PUC declines to order an investigation, but
issues an order requiring Verizon officials to provide sworn
affirmations of the truthfulness of seven representations the company
made in press releases filed with the PUC.
AUG. 21, 2006: The federal government sues state officials and Verizon Communications to prevent the release of information.
SEPT. 12, 2006: Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe files a
document in U.S. District Court in Bangor, arguing that the federal
government's lawsuit is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution and doesn't
belong in court.
Sources: Press Herald archives, www.maine.gov/ag/, Maine Public Utilities Commission
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