The hearing was called to order, and the bashing began. First Maggie Wilson, who'd been waiting for phone service since June 1997. Then Patricia Ross, who lost $67,000 when her conference center's lines conked out last summer. Then Grace Romo, who went six weeks without a dial tone while her baby was on a respirator. Then Mike Tone, who gets a busy signal every time he tries to surf the Internet. And so on, for two hours.
"You can't run a business without phones," Ross fumed. "It's like we're living in a Third World country!"
The complainers were venting about US West, a Baby Bell with a near-monopoly over local phone service in 14 western states, searingly described by the Arizona Republic as "the company everyone loves to hate." In recent years, US West (slogan: "Life's Better Here") has paid millions of dollars in fines for poor service, returned tens of millions of dollars in overcharges and faced a deluge of regulatory problems. Intelligent Network News, a telecommunications trade publication, says the firm is "widely considered to have the worst quality of service record of any regional Bell."
US West has another distinction as well: In terms of its employees and political action committee, it has been the largest campaign contributor to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), donating more than $100,000 over his legislative career; US West chief executive Solomon Trujillo is co-chairman of McCain's presidential campaign finance committee and his biggest overall fund-raiser. And McCain is the author of a far-reaching bill that would propel US West and the other Baby Bells into the lucrative world of high-speed data transmission.
McCain insists that regardless of his donors, he always tries to do right by consumers, and his campaign says it is unfair to tar him with the consumer problems of US West. With his home-state primary looming next month, his Arizona constituents seem to agree; few of the consumers infuriated by US West seem inclined to take out their frustrations on McCain.
Still, the senator's ties to US West offer a prime illustration of the complex balancing act he faces in his shoot-from-the-hip drive for the White House, as he desperately speed-dials to compete with George W. Bush's campaign cash machine while continuing his high-minded attacks on the corrupting influence of money in politics.
It is not, after all, a simple relationship. McCain is considered a strong supporter of US West and the other Baby Bells on Capitol Hill. When McCain introduced his Internet Regulatory Freedom Act in May, Trujillo proclaimed that "if the Internet is deregulated in the manner Senator McCain is suggesting, US West will be able to provide high-speed Internet service to an additional 2 million households and businesses during the first year alone."
But the feisty senator has not been an unflinching supporter of his top donor, opposing its interests on several key issues in Congress, and once condemning an Arizona regulatory agency's decision that protected the company from competition in local phone markets. "If that's the kind of 'influence' over me that US West employees are supposedly buying with their campaign contributions," McCain wrote at the time, "they're entitled to a refund."
"John McCain subscribes to Ronald Reagan's dictum: When someone offers support, you're not buying into their agenda," said McCain spokesman Dan Schnur. "They're buying into yours."
Still, McCain has argued that campaign cash does buy access, that the system taints all members of Congress, that appearances of coziness do matter, that companies are not known for giving money to politicians in pursuit of good government. And his high-profile support for campaign reform magnified several recent controversies over his dealings with donors, from his decision to scuttle a "Passengers Bill of Rights" opposed by the airline industry to his letters to the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of a big contributor that lent McCain its corporate plane for his presidential run.
US West officials insist that their financial support for McCain has nothing to do with their business dealings, much less their service record. They say that Trujillo, a Republican who used to work for US West in Arizona, has always admired the senator. "John McCain represents one of the company's most populous states, so it's no surprise that many of our employees support him," said a company spokesman. "Our CEO likes him on a personal level, respects his heroism, and believes he can handle foreign and domestic issues."
It's not surprising that any telecommunications company's PAC and employees would give generously to the chairman who oversees telecommunications; even US West's arch rival, AT&T, is McCain's No. 3 all-time donor in this regard, despite his general support for Baby Bells. Trujillo has become one of the nation's most prominent Latino businessmen; he was recently honored by President Clinton for his commitment to diversity. Still, it's easy to see why McCain's aides seem eager to distance him from a company known as "US Worst" to many frustrated consumers.
In Arizona, customer complaints against the company are at an all-time high; the state regulates more than 600 utilities, but more than half its complaints are about US West. Regulators have fined US West $2 million over the last three years for service problems and are preparing to levy another fine this month. Meanwhile, the company is pursuing a $70 million rate increase; it also claims it has met the competition standards necessary to enter the long-distance market, even though it controls more than 99 percent of the local market. So Arizona Corporation Commissioner Bill Mundell--a Republican who supports McCain--has scheduled a dozen hearings like the one in Green Valley to air US West horror stories.
"We're not all ogres," sputtered US West area marketing manager George Favela, the company's sacrificial lamb in Green Valley. "We know we have some service issues."
There are similar issues in 13 other states. For several years, US West came in last of the Baby Bells in a J.D. Power and Associates study of customer satisfaction; this year, it improved to a tie for last. A recent study by a regional consumer coalition concluded the company provides "poor and at times terrible" service. Just last week, Colorado fined the company $12.8 million for service failures; Minnesota and Washington have levied similar fines. Oregon and New Mexico officials are threatening to rescind the company's license. At a recent dinner in Washington, FCC Chairman William Kennard joked about mythical "low-power telephones" that fade out during calls from over a mile away--"sort of like US West."
Last year, while US West enjoyed billion-dollar profits and its 28 top executives enjoyed big pay raises, Trujillo conceded that "service is not where I want it to be," and launched a wide-ranging initiative to boost spending on phone lines and hire 2,000 new employees. US West does have the toughest service area of the Baby Bells, mixing rural expanses that have "too much dirt between phones" with some of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the nation. And company sources said that today Trujillo will release statistics indicating that the company has made great strides in improving service.
But the company is under fire for selling 600 of its rural phone exchanges at the same time it is pressuring Congress to end the "digital divide," the gap between Americans included and excluded from the Internet revolution. It faces several lawsuits charging that it has shortchanged customers in order to beef up high-tech investments such as Internet television and to primp for potential merger partners. Qwest Communications is planning to acquire US West for $43 billion; if the FCC approves the deal, Trujillo will enjoy a $45 million payday.
"There's no doubt about it: US West is leaving its consumers out in the cold," says Scott Wakefield, chief counsel for the Arizona state office representing utility consumers.
Here in Green Valley, a retirement community best known as the site of the last Titan missile depot, they spun Kafkaesque tales of the company's phantom repairmen, static-filled lines and vanishing service, but most of the US West bashers said they don't blame McCain for taking its money. They seemed to like his war-hero record and no-nonsense style.
"John McCain is an honest citizen; nobody's going to buy him with contributions," said Wilma Kramer, a Republican who came to denounce US West's treatment of the hearing-impaired. "Anyway, $100,000 isn't that much money. If you want to talk real money, talk about [George W.] Bush."
Maggie Wilson, 70, would rather talk about McCain. She said a US West representative promised her a $99 installation when she moved to the rural town of Arivaca 2 1/2 years ago. She got a letter in the mail, thanking her for choosing US West. But no phone. Then she got a bill for $13,000, which she refused to pay. Then she was told she'd need to sign up another 25 new customers to get service. So she's still waiting. Wilson said she once got a letter from McCain's office, offering help, but she hasn't heard from him since his reelection.
"Unfortunately, I can't afford to buy a senator," said Wilson, a nursing aide who read a furious poem titled "Ode to US West" at the Green Valley hearing. "So I can't get a phone."
But most of the disconnected customers sounded more like Bruce Buchanan, who has waited five months for US West to fix the phones at his Arivaca ranch, and who was told last month that his refund check is "in the mail." Buchanan, a conservative Republican with a crew cut and a Colt belt buckle, said he doesn't care where the company he hates sends its campaign donations. He's probably going to vote for McCain, too.
"I'm sure all companies that give money to politicians expect favors in return, but that's just the way the system works," Buchanan said. "It's not John McCain's fault."
McCain's Top Benefactor
In terms of its employees and political action committee, US West has been the top contributor to Sen. John McCain (R) during his political career, according to the Center for Public Integrity, which lists his top donors as follows:
US West $107,520
Hensley & Co. 80,300
AT&T and affiliated companies 72,250
Viacom and affiliated companies 61,750
Boeing and affiliated companies 61,400
CAPTION: Maggie Wilson, 70, told a hearing in Arizona that she's been waiting 2 1/2 years for telephone service from US West.