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Tongren woes peril all sorts of 'coziness'

10/26/03


Three years ago, when complaints against Ameritech Ohio reached record levels, Ohio's top utility watchdog - Rob Tongren - was neither seen nor heard. Instead, AARP acted as the consumers' main advocate, and state regulators eventually ordered Ameritech to pay record- setting fines and penalties for violating state phone-service standards. Back then, Tongren's silence drew sharp criticism from several consumer groups. But one such group - the Ohio Taxpayers' Association - never chimed in.

Flash ahead to this past week, and the taxpayers' association became the first - and the loudest - critic of Tongren. The group was first in line to demand his resignation, accused him of being "cozy" with some utilities and released "Spending Watch," a lengthy report critical of the way Tongren spends $9 million of the public's money each year.

OTA President Scott Pullins attributes his newly discovered voice to news reports that Tongren continues to shirk his duties as the state's chief advocate for residential consumers.

Tongren's latest troubles center on his office's decision to destroy a consultant's report that concluded FirstEnergy Corp. is entitled to collect between $2 billion and $4 billion to recoup past investments known as "stranded costs." Instead, Tongren signed off on a deal that entitles First Energy to $8.7 billion. The Akron-based utility collects the money by adding a surcharge to the electric bills of its customers.

Although taxpayers spent $579,000 for the consultant's report, they never saw it and most never knew it existed.

Pullins professes to be concerned about the report's content and destruction, but there are signs that his motives are less than pure.

His reputation as a watchdog is already suspect after last year's decree that votes in support of a higher cigarette tax don't violate the no-new-taxes pledge his group had convinced some legislators to sign. At the time, he attributed the about-face to the group's decision to become "more of a mainstream organization." Others suggested he was currying favor with House leaders who had backed the increase.

Now, Pullins has formed an odd alliance with SBC, Ameritech's successor.

Ever since he came under fire for sitting on the sidelines in the Ameritech case, Tongren has adopted a more combative persona, challenging SBC on everything from its request for a late- payment fee to its application to offer long-distance services in Ohio. SBC, which had grown accustomed to Tongren the lap dog, feared he would evolve into Tongren the watchdog. So SBC fought back - with a little help from Pullins.

Pullins' group has joined Inform Ohio, an SBC-funded organization that touts the economic benefits of the company's entry into Ohio's long-distance market. Pullins won't say whether the phone company or its affiliates is giving the Ohio Taxpayers' Association or its affiliate any money, but it's clear that Pullins is doing SBC's bidding.

Inform Ohio shows up as a link on Pullins' Web site. And both Pullins' "Spending Watch" report and Inform Ohio's Web site con tain identical arguments in support of SBC's long-distance services. Both cite the same study from Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management.

While some at SBC were initially giddy over Tongren's latest troubles, reality is beginning to set in.

The phone company that simply wanted to tame Tongren is now fearful that the Ohio consumers' counsel will be forced out and replaced by a more aggressive consumer advocate.

And to think that SBC could help make it all possible.

Theis is chief of The Plain Dealer's Columbus bureau.

Contact Sandy Theis at:

stheis@plaind.com, 800-228-8272


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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