Verizon responds to Maine


PORTLAND (AP) – Verizon phone company on Friday told the Maine Public Utilities Commission that it should dismiss a complaint seeking to find out if it is giving the National Security Agency information on its telephone customers in Maine.

In a seven-page response to the PUC, Verizon said the commission lacks the authority over NSA records because the NSA program is “highly classified.” Verizon also said it can neither confirm nor deny whether it has any relationship to an NSA program.

A group of 21 Mainers filed a complaint last week asking the PUC to order Verizon New England Inc. to answer whether it provided telephone records and information to the federal government without customers’ knowledge or consent. The complaint further asked if Verizon had given the NSA access to its telephone switching equipment.

“Verizon is prohibited…from providing any information concerning its alleged cooperation with the NSA program,” Donald Boeke, a Verizon attorney, wrote in the response. “Indeed, it is a felony under federal criminal law for any person to divulge classified information concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States to any person that has not been authorized by the president, or his lawful designee, to receive such information.”

PUC staff members will review the complaint and Verizon’s response and make a recommendation to the commissioners on whether to open an investigation or dismiss the complaint, said PUC spokesman Phil Lindley. The process should take at least a couple of weeks.

Maine law requires the PUC to investigate complaints against a utility if a petition involves at least 10 of the utility’s customers.

Two days after the complaint in Maine was filed, USA Today newspaper reported that the NSA had collected the phone records of millions of Americans using data provided by Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc. and BellSouth Corp.

BellSouth later denied that it provided any records to the NSA. Verizon issued a statement saying it doesn’t provide any government agency “unfettered access to our customer records or provide information to the government under circumstances that would allow a fishing expedition.”

The lead plaintiff in the Maine complaint is James Cowie of Portland, a former adviser to the PUC staff and expert witness on its advocate staff. Cowie said he brought the complaint after Verizon refused to tell him if it had given his personal records to the federal government.

Cowie said he was “dumbstruck” by Verizon’s argument that it couldn’t release any information because it was “highly classified.” That argument, he said, is usually reserved for government intelligence agencies – not a private entity.

“It seems like something the government might file, but not a local telephone company,” Cowie said.

Maine Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Shenna Bellows said it is the MCLU’s position that the PUC has the statutory authority to get the information from Verizon.

“Mainers deserve to know if their calls are being monitored by the government,” she said.

Bellows said the complaint in Maine is the first in the nation filed with a state regulatory agency seeking to learn whether phone companies are giving customer information to the NSA.