Verizon Unit Fined Over Pa. Postcards

Bell Atlantic-Pa. Inc. will pay $250,000 to end a lawsuit brought by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Consumer Protection over a lobbying campaign during which postcards were sent to legislators without the permission of consumers whose names appeared on them.

Legislators were suspicious of the mail blitz, which was purportedly generated by telephone customers supportive of Bell Atlantic's move into long-distance services. Suspicions turned into a lawsuit when at least one lawmaker received a postcard from a constituent whom the legislator knew to be dead.

Executives of Bell Atlantic-Pa., now part of Verizon Communications, signed a document called an assurance of voluntary compliance, although the company admitted no wrong-doing. The telco was accused of violating the state's Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law.

A state investigation determined that the telco hired an outside lobbying firm-Issue Dynamics Inc. of Washington, D.C.-in 1997. IDI developed a "public-advocacy program" for a group called Keep Pennsylvania Connected, designed to promote Bell Atlantic's bid to gain approval as a long-distance carrier.

The state determined that Bell Atlantic-Pa. funded and played a "major role in overseeing" KPC, according to the state attorney general's office.

Last February, about 15,000 postcards arrived in the offices of state legislators, criticizing attempts by AT & T Corp. to keep the Bell Atlantic division limited to the local telephone business.

"Bell Atlantic's entry into the long-distance market will bring one-stop shopping and lower phone bills," the cards read, urging legislators to avoid having the "wool pulled over" their eyes by AT & T.

One legislator, Rep. John Lawless (R-Montgomery), called consumers listed on the cards and found that the voters had not given approval for the mailing. Another lawmaker recognized a correspondent as an acquaintance who had been dead for two years.

Lawless recommended that the Bureau of Consumer Protection launch an investigation of the telco's lobbying practices.

Bell Atlantic-Pa. and its agents asserted that prior to the dispatch of the cards, consumers were contacted by telephone to gain permission for the use of their names.

But the state concluded that some of the cards were mailed without consumer permission, and officials told Bell Atlantic that company officials knew, or should have known, the lobbying effort was misusing the identity of individuals.

Bell Atlantic-Pa. countered in responses to the state that it did not know in advance about the unauthorized postcards. Further, the company launched its own investigation once the cards were questioned.

In addition to the payment to the state to cover the investigation and future consumer-protection efforts, the telco agreed to fully comply with consumer-protection laws.

It also stopped any "unlawful use of the identity of the citizens of the Commonwealth" and agreed that it will be subject to civil penalties should a court deem that it has failed to comply with this agreement.