A lawsuit seeking access to US WEST Communication's records on charitable contributions has been filed with the Utah Supreme Court.
Kent Walgren, an attorney with the Utah Committee of Consumer Services, said the suit is intended to obtain a court ruling on the duty of utilities to act in good faith and be forthcoming to regulators and to force the Utah Public Service Commission to hold new hearings concerning the company's charitable contributions between 1976 and 1988."We also want to get some teeth into the law," Walgren said.
He said the committee believes US WEST, then doing business as Mountain Bell, willfully included corporate charitable contributions in its expenses that were used to set customer rates. That would violate a 1969 order by the commission that such charitable donations were the responsibility of shareholders and not ratepayers.
The committee wants a hearing to determine the amount charged to ratepayers during that 12-year period in order to force a refund.
During rate hearings the past year and this year, the commission restated its position that charitable contributions would not be allowed as part of the rate base for customers.
The committee and the Salt Lake Citizens Congress filed a petition seeking the additional information, but that request was dismissed by an administrative law judge and upheld by the commission. The Supreme Court suit is an appeal of that decision.
Walgren said the committee wants the commission to order reparations to ratepayers and to consider imposing fines of between $500 and $2,000 daily, as authorized by the existing law. This could total several million dollars. The committee is also seeking to reverse past judgments for adjustments if shown that the utility's actions constituted fraud during rate hearings.
Walgren said Minnesota and Arizona have recently had favorable court rulings involving similar cases. He said the most satisfying elements of the cases involved recovery of past charges and a ruling that such recoveries do not constitute retroactive ratemaking, a process disallowed by federal law.
"We are hopeful the court will send the matter back to the Public Service Commission for a formal hearing," Walgren said. "We also hope it will contain some legal guidance for the commission to follow in these hearings."