Bell Case Request Pondered

Article excerpt

By Ronda Fears

Journal Record Staff Reporter

A request to suspend a record $92.8 million rate cut and $148.4 million refund ordered against Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. pending the outcome of an appeal by Bell is being weighed by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

The threember regulatory panel also is considering a request to make Bell post a surety bond guaranteed by a third party in the interim of its appeal of the rate case decision to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Corporation commissioners Bob Anthony, Cody Graves and J.C. Watts Jr. took the requests under advisement Tuesday, making no immediate decision in the politically charged rate case.

Anthony had indicated a decision would be made following a hearing Tuesday that was a continuation from Thursday, but Watts suggested it be deferred until he could confer with legal counsel.

Bell asked that the rate case order, signed Aug. 26, be stayed until the appeal is decided and offered to post a $250 million bond with Bell assets as security.

"Our position is the (Oklahoma) constitution doesn't require a thirdrty surety. Certainly, this commission has never required that," said Bell attorney Glen Glass.

"There was never going to be any cash paid anyway. Pursuant to your order, the refund was in the form of a credit" on telephone bills over a 12-month period, he said.

Moreover, Glass asserted that Bell's assets in Oklahoma, including its revenue stream, were adequate to cover a $250 million bond, or more. He said the company's assets in Oklahoma were valued at $1.5 billion, with revenues totaling $800 million annually. Companywide, he said, Bell has assets of $17.6 billion and revenues totaling $7.4 billion, which would be attached to the bond.

Assistant Oklahoma Attorney General Robert Butkin, however, countered that there is no assurance that Bell's assets will be adequate in two years or longer _the anticipated duration of the appeal.

"The purpose of the bond, as it is, is to discourage frivolous appeals," Butkin said.

The Attorney General's Office sought a $350 million bond.

Commission staff advocated a thirdrty bond, but agreed that $250 million would be adequate for one year while the rate case was on appeal. Beyond one year, the bond should be revised upward as necessary, commission staff suggested.

Too, commission staff argued that the entire order should not be suspended, particularly a portion that orders Bell to make $84 million in network modernizations, mostly in rural Oklahoma over five years.

Oklahoma law requires a thirdrty surety bond, Butkin asserted, but he said that if Bell is ordered to post a surety bond then the order should be stayed in its entirety. …