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Qwest Is Object of PR Battle

Nov 19, 2002 | Pioneer Press

Critics and defenders of Qwest Communications International have been waging an emotional and expensive public relations war over how the state should punish the phone company for its illegal actions.

The battle will be joined in the public arena today when the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission considers penalties for Qwest's anticompetitive behavior.

The antagonists have invested tens of thousands of dollars in newspaper ads, written hundreds of letters and fired off salvos of e-mails to state regulators in hopes of swaying the PUC's decision — and winning the sympathies of Minnesotans.

On one side are Qwest's detractors, who think the PUC should come down hard because they believe that's the only way the company will learn to behave.

Arguing passionately for mercy are thousands of Qwest employees and retirees, who take the issue personally fearing the loss of jobs and security.

The company was found to have engaged in anti-competitive behavior, namely keeping deals with some rival phone companies secret and thereby denying other rivals in the market the same opportunities. The Commerce Department says this was the latest in a string of abuses that can only be stopped with severe remedies.

But Qwest employee Mary Beth Dawson wants the PUC to give Qwest a break.

"It makes me angry to see and hear news reports that feature members of your commission characterizing us as some kind of evil empire, with a captive customer base relegated to our dungeon of poor service," the Maplewood woman wrote the PUC.

Dawson is one of 5,900 employees who toil daily in the telecommunications trenches, and she's one of scores of employees and former workers who have been inundating the PUC with letters and e-mails.

What effect any of the public's comments will have is hard to determine. The PUC may concentrate more on the hundreds of pages of written documentation from Qwest, the Commerce Department, Qwest's chief rivals like telephone giant AT&T and expert witnesses for both sides.

The advocacy campaigns appear aimed more at trying to get forces such as legislators or the governor to apply pressure on the PUC.

"I wouldn't characterize it as feeling pressure," said PUC spokesman Burl Haar of the lobbying campaigns. "I would characterize it as feeling the magnitude of what we're involved in."

Qwest's critics are urging the PUC to fine the company up to $195 million, or break it into separate retail and wholesale operations serving consumers and rival phone companies, or even revoke its license to operate in the state.

Qwest says that if the state forgoes penalties altogether, the company will create 100 new jobs, extend high-speed Internet access to six rural communities, offer free telemarketing protection to residents age 65 and older and extend discounts on wholesale telephone service to some of its competitors so they get the same deals the company illegally gave a favored few.

Deputy Commerce Commissioner Tony Mendoza said the company is scaring its employees and retirees into lobbying on its behalf.

"We think it's bad for Qwest to be holding its employees and retirees hostage," he said Monday the same day both Twin Cities' daily newspapers displayed full-page ads blasting the Department of Commerce and touting Qwest's benefits to the state.

The ads were placed by the Minnesota Alliance for Telecommunications Competition, a group of 6,800 parties, including Qwest.

"It's the issue of the day," said Qwest spokesman Bryce Hallowell, who said his company funded the expensive newspaper ads but denied it orchestrated an employee lobbying campaign.

"We feel strongly about this, so absolutely, we're going to pull out the stops on this."

Citizens for Local Phone Choice, a group critical of Qwest that includes AT&T, also took out full-page ads in both the Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune on Monday and last Thursday. The ads, paid for in large part by AT&T, ask the PUC not to let Qwest off the hook.

"AT&T is confident the commissioners will see through the human shield Qwest is trying to create to protect it from real penalties," AT&T spokeswoman Deb Osgood said.

Officials from the Communications Workers of America, the union representing Qwest workers, have pleaded with state officials from the governor on down for leniency for the company.

Retirees of Qwest and its predecessors, the old US West and Northwestern Bell telephone companies, also are peppering officials with pleas to go easy on the company so their pensions aren't endangered and their depressed Qwest stock can recover.

Retiree Merle Schnepf, 69, of St. Paul, plans to show up at the PUC today to make his feelings known in person.

"If you're a no-show, they begin to think you don't care," the St. Paul retiree said. "This is the rest of my life they're talking about."

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