Government

Telecom CEO cited mother's death in plea to avoid fine: Utility regulators stood firm on $1.1 penalty against Micronet; Wyoming company plans to appeal

April 24, 2006

Of all the curious legal filings with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission since the late 1800s, Frank Santa's might be the first to use the death of a mother as a defense against financial sanctions.

And it's likely the first utility filing in the last 100 years to include the death certificate of a Hungarian widow.

The president of Casper, Wyo.-based Micronet Inc. stated in a Feb. 3 filing with the IURC that his firm shouldn't have to pay a $1.1 million penalty for 364 allegations of improperly billing Hoosier phone customers-in part because he was suffering "emotional stress associated with his mother's illness and death."

A few weeks later, apparently unmoved by the plea, the IURC entered a default judgment against Micronet seeking the $1.1 million.

Then, late last month, Micronet told the IURC it would appeal the penalty before the Indiana Court of Appeals.

The sad story started last summer, when the commission and the Office of Utility Consumer Counselor couldn't get Santa to respond as they tried to get to the bottom of the billing complaints.

The commission alleged Micronet billed hundreds of Indiana business, residential and state government lines for directory assistance service callers never requested or authorized in 2004 and 2005.

Even Santa's Indianapolis law firm, Stewart & Irwin, dumped him for not returning numerous phone calls.

Santa surfaced in February, explaining in his filing with the IURC that he was in Hungary from September until shortly after his mother's death from breast cancer, in December.

Santa, who is again represented by Stewart & Irwin, acknowledged that he failed to respond to the OUCC's discovery requests, to follow the commission's July 8 and Sept. 30 orders directing compliance with the OUCC's discovery, and to appear at an Oct. 20 deposition.

"However, Mr. Santa believes that the exigent circumstances surrounding his mother's illness and death warrant the commission exercising its discretion to preclude the entry of default judgment and imposition of exorbitant financial penalties currently threatened against Micronet."

Anthony Swinger, spokesman for the OUCC, said the commission's order is on "strong legal footing."

"[Micronet] had the opportunity to comply with the commission's order for discovery ... this is the most egregious violation of the state's cramming and slamming statue that I'm aware of," Swinger added.

Cramming is adding unauthorized charges to a phone consumer's accounts, while slamming is changing phone service without a customer's permission.

Micronet intends to file its brief with the appeals court after the commission turns over hearing transcripts and other material, said Santa's attorney, Andrea Hermer, of Stewart & Irwin.

Greenwood accountant David B. Mann found $14 in unauthorized charges on his phone bill, an amount he got back after complaining to the firm. It wasn't so much the temporary loss of $14 that burned Mann but the loss of billable hours for the accountant as he sought an explanation and refund.

"Unless and until they come after this man criminally, it's not going to stop," he said of cramming."
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