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Former Oklahoma Southwestern Bell customers owed $14.3 billion in refunds?

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OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. - A return to a 1994 political corruption case involving the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and former Southwestern Bell Telephone executives is about reignite when new court documents are filed Monday at the state Supreme Court.

The new documents will include sworn affidavits from a current corporation commissioner and secretly recorded FBI tapes that were made during a sting operation that landed one commissioner and a telephone company attorney in federal prison.

The affidavits are part of a lawsuit seeking $14.3 billion in refunds to Oklahoma ratepayers from AT&T, Inc., formerly known as SBC Communications and Southwestern Bell Telephone Company. The action was filed June 26 by Nichols Hills Mayor Sody Clements and Lt. General (retired) Richard Burpee, a former commander at Tinker Air Force Base, on behalf of all other AT&T customers in Oklahoma.

The case seeks to create a class-action lawsuit and invalidate a split 1989 Corporation Commission decision that allowed the telephone giant to retain “excess revenues” generated from a 12 percent reduction in the corporate federal income tax rate in 1987.

The lawsuit contends the extra money, estimated at $100 million a year for the past 27 years plus 11.589 percent interest compounded annually, should have been returned to telephone company customers. That would amount to an estimated $15,000 per land line customer during the 27-year time period, the suit claims.

Jack Shrader, attorney for the petitioners, claims the 1989 vote is unconstitutional because then-Commissioner Robert Hopkins accepted bribes from Southwestern Bell executives in exchange for his vote on the “excess revenues.” Excluding the bribed vote of Commissioner Hopkins, the commission’s 1989 order lacks the approval of a majority of the commission as required by the Oklahoma Constitution.

Hopkins was joined by Commissioner Norma Eagleton with her “yes” vote while Commissioner Jim Townsend voted against the proposal.

An investigation by the FBI revealed Southwestern Bell attorney William Anderson gave thousands of dollars to Hopkins for his vote. Anderson was found guilty in a 1994 federal bribery case while Hopkins was convicted of accepting money to influence a vote.

“Oklahoma law is clear, however, that ‘bribed’ votes do not count and that where the minimum numbers of votes required by the Constitution is not present due to bribery, then no lawful or constitutionally proper resolution was ever entered,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit could have a powerful financial impact on large telephone customers such as Oklahoma City and Tinker Air Force Base. However, Assistant Municipal Counselor for Oklahoma City, Wiley Williams did not return phone calls for comment

Case breaks open

The scandal was discovered in mid-1990 during a conversation between Anderson and Corporation Commissioner Robert Anthony, who was cooperating in an FBI investigation. Anthony was elected to the commission in November 1988 and took office in January 1989.

Anderson confided to Anthony that money had been paid to Hopkins in connection with his vote. Subsequent conversations provided additional details, including the identity of other participants, according to a 1994 brief filed by federal prosecutors.

According to prosecutors, the conspiracy to pay the bribe started in early September 1989 and ended in early May 1990 when the last funds were paid. In addition, Hopkins and Anderson agreed that neither would talk to the FBI if approached, but would instead meet and confer between themselves while creating a false version of events surrounding the Public Utilities Docket 260 vote.

Hopkins appealed his conviction to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which remarked about the use of secret FBI tape recordings that occurred in 1991.

“The tapes detailed efforts to conceal the payoffs from the FBI. From those tapes, the jury heard recorded conversations among Hopkins, Anderson, Murphy (witness) and other Southwestern Bell executives plotting their ‘story’ in the event federal agents questioned them,” the appeals court judges wrote.

In an interview with PBS’ Frontline, Anthony acknowledged that a “utility lawyer,” later identified as Anderson, offered him a $10,000 contribution to clear up campaign debt. Anderson reportedly told Anthony at the time he could get him $300 to $400 in “walking around money.”

On another occasion, Anderson allegedly handed Anthony fifty $100 bills, then explained what was expected for the money.

“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,’” Anthony said during the Frontline interview.

“Well, a certain amount of this is a wink and a nod, too,” he said. “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.”

 

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Tim Farley

Tim Farley is an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years of experience, including...

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