Qwest battles mounting angst
Ever seen 'The President's Analyst'? The 1967 film featured James Coburn as a psychiatrist charged with treating a fictional U.S. president.
The theme that ultimately linked each of the film's seemingly arbitrary events was the prevalence of 'the phone company.' At one point early in the film, Coburn mentions that all of his patients, regardless of background or social standing, 'hate the phone company.'
Some 30 years later, everyone still seems to hate the phone company. So much so that they're equating Oregon's telecom provider with 2002's poster child for failed companies. Is there a chance we'll see Qwest executives taking the Fifth Amendment before House and Senate subcommittees?
'Believe me, you won't see any of us there,' Judy Peppler, Qwest's vice president for law and policy in Oregon, said with a slight chuckle.
Peppler just finished one heck of a week. On Tuesday, Qwest agreed to pay a settlement relating to questionable billing practices in Oregon. Attorney General Hardy Myers said Qwest agreed to pay $575,000 in response to charges that it 'crammed' unauthorized charges on customers' bills.
Myers, in announcing the agreement, charged that the company's 'unethical practices railroaded new customers into paying increased fees for services they did not need.'
In the meantime, Portland law firm Garvey, Schubert & Barer continues to work on a suit accusing Qwest of 'wrongfully charging plaintiffs roaming rates within local home coverage areas.'
All of which begs the question: Weren't these issues supposed to disappear when Qwest bought US West?
'There was a real concerted effort in Qwest to step up and turn (US West's) service issues around' when the purchase was made, said Peppler, who is a veteran of both companies.
To the company's mind, it succeeded.
'We're now offering the best service that we've had for the last seven years,' Peppler said. 'There was definite pressure to stabilize service and find a way to sustain that and fix it going forward, and I think we've accomplished that.'
Joan Smith, an Oregon Public Utility commissioner who's seen the best and worst of both US West and Qwest, agrees.
'They have absolutely improved' over US West, she said.
The bad news is that the E-word (Enron) is lurking. It appeared in a New York Times account of Qwest's announcement that it would tap a $4 billion line of bank credit to help cover short-term debts.
The announcement drove investors to unload their Qwest shares, at one point sinking the price to the high $6 mark. The stock closed at $7.56 on Friday.
Peppler blames the overall telecom market doldrums.
'When you add the Enron situation to that, and the scrutiny about all companies right now, yeah, we're definitely taking some hits,' she said. 'But so are all the other companies.'
Still, Smith said, Qwest's money issues are uppermost on the utility commission's list of concerns about Qwest.
'We're worried about their overall financial health, which affects their cost of borrowing,' Smith said.