Three years ago, when Nichols Hills resident and former Oklahoma Corporation Commission employee Sody Clements filed a class action lawsuit to nullify a 1989 corporation commission telephone case tainted by a bribed vote, she believed justice was on her side.
Two decades earlier, federal authorities investigated allegations of bribery over the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company rate case and won convictions against former Corporation Commissioner Bob Hopkins and William Anderson, an attorney representing the telephone company. Both served time in federal prison.
For the past two decades, Clements anxiously awaited for either Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates public utilities and the oil and gas industry, or the Oklahoma Supreme Court to reopen the case involving Southwestern Bell. She watched closely as court filings to reopen the case bounced between the two courts. When legal challenges came before the Supreme Court, Clements grew frustrated and disappointed to see the court reject them for procedural or discretionary reasons.
“We’ve never had a hearing on the merits of the case,” Clements told Oklahoma Gazette.
Motivated by the belief that bribery is unconstitutional and a vote determined by a bribe should not stand, Clements and retired Lt. Gen. Richard Burpee petitioned the Oklahoma Supreme Court to void the 1989 vote and refund any excess revenues collected by the telephone company to ratepayers. Months after the lawsuit was filed, the justices voted 7-0 to deny jurisdiction in the case. The justices offered no legal opinion on the bribed vote.
The fight continued.
In 2015, Clements and Burpee, this time joined by James Proctor, Rodd A. Mosel, Ray H. Potts and Bob A. Ricks, petitioned for the Corporation Commission to once again reopen the case. Eight months after the commission heard arguments to dismiss the citizens’ application by attorneys representing AT&T Oklahoma, the predecessor of Southwestern Bell, and the Office of the Oklahoma Attorney General, the commission voted 2-1 to dismiss the case. The group of former customers and regulators responded by appealing that dismissal to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Now, with the case pending before the Oklahoma Supreme Court, the citizens allege newly disclosed evidence from FBI wiretap transcripts show the conspiracy went beyond Hopkins and Anderson to former executives at Southwestern Bell. New evidence further points to fraud on the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
The case could have major implications for the public and the state, Clements said. Proctor, a fellow applicant, is a former director of the commission’s public utility division. In a 2015 affidavit, he said former Southwestern Bell customers could be owed as much as $16 billion in refunds. Local, state and federal government entities that were Southwestern Bell customers at the time could also be eligible for refunds.
“My outrage began when I realized the agency that was supposed to be watching out for us wasn’t doing that,” Clements said. “When I was working at the Corporation Commission and I was made aware of the bribery, it just made me burn. I have been riled-up ever since.”
“Does bribery win?”
In 1989, the Corporation Commission voted 2-1 to allow Southwestern Bell to retain a windfall from federal tax code reductions by investing about $30 million to fund upgrades to Oklahoma’s phone network.
Commissioner Bob Anthony, the newest member of the three-member body, dissented the order and advocated the windfall money should have been refunded to Oklahoma customers. At the time, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office and AARP backed refunds to customers.
Anthony, who went on to help the FBI with its bribery investigation at the commission, has long argued the Southwestern Bell case should be reopened because of a bribed vote.
In 2014, Anthony told an Oklahoma Supreme Court referee that the matter before the court could be “stated in three words: Does bribery win? Or in four words: Do bribed votes count? So far, the shameful and unfortunate answer in Oklahoma is, yes. Public corruption wins again.”
When reached for comment, Anthony said he couldn’t comment on the latest appeal, as the case is still pending. However, he directed Oklahoma Gazette to the appeal record and a public comment made by retired Oklahoma County District Judge and former Assistant United States Attorney John M. Amick, who said in 2011, “Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Bob Hopkins was convicted in federal court of receiving a bribe influencing his vote in the PUB 260 case, but his bribed vote still stands. The Corporation Commission should declare the bribed vote to be void.”
“That should have happened,” Anthony said.
AT&T Oklahoma has long maintained the issue is closed.
“Over the past 25 years, this case has been rejected at least six times by either the Supreme Court or the Corporation Commission, including a vote to dismiss by Commissioner [Bob] Anthony in 2013,” AT&T Oklahoma said in a statement released to Oklahoma Gazette last week.
“Despite the applicants’ continued misstatement of the facts, Southwestern Bell never kept any excess revenues. As required by the commission over 25 years ago, we invested all of it — about $31 million over three years — in our Oklahoma network, to the benefit of Oklahoma citizens. Since then, we have continued to invest in our network. In fact, we’ve invested more than $775 million in our Oklahoma wireless and wired networks during 2014-2016.”
“It’s such a blatant case,” retired FBI agent and former Special Agent in Charge of the Oklahoma Division Oliver “Buck” Revell told Oklahoma Gazette by phone last week. “The facts are not in question. They’ve been established. Yet to have the Supreme Court of Oklahoma not recognize that the citizens and businesses were duped by this overcharging scheme for which bribes were paid, I find it an indication that something needs to be done.”
Revell argues the Johnson v. Johnson case, which followed the 1965 Oklahoma Supreme Court bribery scandal, has legal precedent in overturning the Corporation Commission’s 1989 bribed vote. Fifty years ago, after Justice Nelson Corn confessed to taking bribes during his time on the Supreme Court, the court decided to reopen only cases affected by his corruption. The court stated it would give “full right to any person who believes that such decision has been corruptly obtained, to petition this court for a hearing, in which, if corruption can be shown, the decision may be set aside.”
Revell said given the federal convictions against a former corporation commissioner and an attorney for the telephone company, the rate case deserves a new hearing, especially given the new evidence and the implications of the case on Oklahomans.
“It’s not only an interesting story but a tragic one,” Revell said. “The people of Oklahoma should expect honest and decent government and not expect the decisions made on their behalf to be influenced by corruption in the system.”
“Not going away”
While the telephone company case has come before the state Supreme Court before, the most recent effort is an “appeal of right.” Under that state constitution’s “Corporations” section, “all such appeals … shall have precedence upon the docket of the Supreme Court, irrespective of its place of session, next after habeas corpus cases, to end that a plain, speedy and efficient remedy may by afforded the parties to such appeals.”
In April, the case was assigned to the Supreme Court. Applicants like Clements continue to wait for the Supreme Court to make a move.
“We are not going away,” Clements said. “We will keep going and going.”
print headline: Fight on, The latest appeal in a 1989 Southwestern Bell bribery case awaits the state Supreme Court.