PUC sets contempt hearing for Verizon

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AUGUSTA (AP) – The Maine Public Utilities Commission unanimously voted Monday to schedule a hearing next month to allow Verizon to argue why it should not be held in contempt for its response to a commission order stemming from allegations about domestic surveillance by the federal government.

The case involves a multi-customer complaint filed last May effectively seeking to force Verizon to say whether it provided telephone call records to the government without a warrant.

The complaint followed media reports about a National Security Agency eavesdropping program.

Verizon, in answer to the customer complaint, issued a response on May 19, 2006, in which it referred to points made in two press releases, including one that declared the company was not asked for records by the NSA and did not provide such records.

The PUC subsequently ordered Verizon, on Aug. 9, to affirm in writing that its representations to the commission were true.

On Aug. 21, the same day that the U.S. Justice Department filed suit against the PUC and Verizon asserting that the PUC was pre-empted by federal law from investigating the alleged spying program, Verizon said it would not submit an affirmation, citing legal action by the federal government.

Since then, the PUC has sought to have the federal suit dismissed and the complaint case has not moved forward.

On Monday, the PUC voted 3-0 to hold a contempt hearing by Feb. 13. Panelists suggested Verizon’s response to date had been inadequate and noted that the ordinary period for resolving complaints was close to expiring.

“This isn’t a national security issue,” said PUC Chairman Kurt Adams.

Verizon had nothing immediate to say.

“Verizon is reserving comment,” spokesman Peter Reilly said.

Complainant James Cowie expressed some satisfaction that the commission was “finally doing something” but maintained that the same action taken Monday could have been taken months ago.

“We’re not happy with the commission at all,” he said.

The Bush administration has agreed to let a panel of federal judges oversee the government’s domestic spying program.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court will have final say in approving wiretaps on communications involving people with suspected terror links, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said earlier this month in a letter to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

AP-ES-01-29-07 1648EST

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