Phony phone ‘Bill of Rights’ shows PUC is misguided |

Phony phone ‘Bill of Rights’ shows PUC is misguided

“We are responsible for ensuring that customers have safe, reliable utility service at reasonable rates, protecting against fraud, …” – from the mission statement of the California Public Utilities Commission.

Maybe it’s time for the five members of the California Public Utilities Commission to take a look at their own mission statement.

For this is an agency plainly gone far afield from the original purpose handed to it by Hiram Johnson, the reform governor of the early 20th century who spurred its creation.

If the PUC’s charge is to ensure safe and reliable utility service, why did it authorize the state’s major natural gas utility companies to give up reserved space on two major pipelines that have reliably supplied fuel to this state for more than 50 years? Why suddenly make the state dependent on liquefied natural gas from foreign sources, some of unproven reliability?

If the commissioners’ charge is to ensure reasonable rates, why did they OK the merger of SBC Communications and AT&T into a near-monopoly mega-phone company that promises to be able to dictate rates to regulators in virtually all states?

And if the PUC’s mission is to protect against fraud, why approve a so-called “bill of rights” for cell phone users that almost guarantees fraud? Especially, why do this just when cell phone use is growing ever more prevalent while cell phone competition is diminishing as providers steadily merge, with the likelihood that Californians will end up having a choice of only one, two or three providers?

All these actions were taken in order to further the health of the companies involved, most particularly the cell phone action. That’s why all were fought by consumer groups and applauded by companies like the newly amalgamated Sprint Nextel, which noted that the cell phone decision “goes a long way toward addressing the concerns of industry of overly proscriptive rules.”

Oddly, that’s not what the commissioners said about their moves. “(This) decision strikes the appropriate balance between protecting consumers against nefarious actions in the marketplace and allowing competition, innovation and consumer choice to flourisha” said Commissioner John Bohn, a recent appointee of the ferociously pro-business Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Fellow Commissioner Rachelle Chong, another Schwarzenegger pick, added, “This is pro-consumer action; it lets carriers know what is expect of them.”

That’s the trouble, Rachelle. A look through the small type in the PUC order shows that very little is expected of cell phone companies (see the full order at Yes, customers have the “right” to accurate bills, but there is no penalty if companies “cram” a common practice of putting unauthorized charges onto phone bills.

In future disputes, the order puts the burden of proof on consumers to establish that charges are wrong, rather than on companies to prove they are correct. How easy is it for a cell phone user to prove he did not make a three-hour call when an invoice says he did, but he knows it’s fiction? Not very, in a world where “investigations” by carriers are cursory at best.

“You can’t flip the burden of proof from the companies to the customers and call it ‘consumer protection’ with a straight face,” says Democratic state Sen. Debra Bowen of Marina del Rey, currently a candidate for California secretary of state.

She’s right. Just as revealing is the fact the so-called bill of rights was written by Schwarzenegger chief of staff Susan Kennedy while she was a PUC commissioner last year. This document was part of what got her promoted to a job where she double dips, drawing paychecks as both the governor’s major domo and his chief massager of campaign contributors.

By itself, the cell phone order is a likely consumer disaster. Taken together with the PUC’s other anti-consumer, pro-business moves of the last year, it establishes that this is an agency gone serious awry, one that has completely lost sight of and enthusiasm for its reason for existing at all.

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