The members who make up the group Oklahomans Against Bribery have formally gone to the U.S. Supreme Court in their fight to return billions of dollars in a nearly 30-year old bribed Corporation Commission case involving AT and T.
The group challenged rulings from the Corporation Commission and the Oklahoma Supreme Court in which a bribed vote has been allowed to stand since the original 1989 rate case.
At stake are an estimated $16 billion which the group says should be refunded to ratepayers.
In their petition for writ of certiorari, the applicants argue their “right to petition” under the First Amendment was violated when the OCC dismissed their bribery refund application “with prejudice,” prohibiting them from ever raising the issue again.
In addition to guaranteeing rights to freedom of religion, free speech, free press, and free assembly, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution also guarantees citizens the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The 2015 bribery refund application was, in effect, a petition asking the OCC to redress the grievance (or, correct the injustice) of AT&T’s bribery.
In their petition, the bribery refund applicants argue that the OCC went too far in its attempt to end forever their efforts to “correct the effects of pernicious bribery,” violating their constitutional rights in the process. Quoting OCC Commissioner Bob Anthony (who voted against dismissing the bribery refund application), the applicants told the U.S. Supreme Court: “[H]ow can the Majority recognize that the [bribery refund] application is ‘legislative’ …, but still dismiss it ‘with prejudice’? Such a legal finding is oxymoronic.” If the high court agrees, it could send the case back to the Oklahoma Supreme Court for further review.
The bribery refund applicants are six prominent citizens who, as phone customers of AT&T, were defrauded when an attorney for the company (then Southwestern Bell) bribed Corporation Commissioner Robert Hopkins in a 1989 rate case. The bribed vote allowed AT&T to keep millions in excess revenues resulting from a federal tax change rather than refunding that money to ratepayers as most of the state’s other public utilities did. Ironically, the 1986 corporate income tax rate reduction that precipitated the case was very similar to the recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.
A new website – OklahomansAgainstBribery.org
– explains the case and its history in layman’s terms and offers links to various court filings.
“We took on this fight when the Attorney General stopped representing Oklahoma ratepayers and started defending AT&T,” said bribery refund applicant and Nichols Hills Mayor Sody Clements. “We hoped the Corporation Commission and the Oklahoma Supreme Court would finally do the right thing – declare once and for all that bribed votes don’t count in this state, and give the billions stolen by AT&T back to the ratepayers. Unfortunately everyone has passed the buck and claimed it’s someone else’s problem to fix. We believe the buck will stop at the United States Supreme Court.”
Despite new evidence of intrinsic fraud at both the Corporation Commission and the Oklahoma Supreme Court, the OCC dismissed the AT&T bribery refund application in September 2016. In a 2-1 vote, Commissioners Todd Hiett and Dana Murphy agreed with AT&T that the commission was powerless to do anything about the bribery and decided neither the application nor the new evidence of fraud were worth hearing.
Commissioner Bob Anthony, who worked with the FBI to uncover the bribery, vehemently disagreed. “By not hearing this case, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission forfeits an opportunity to perform its Constitutional duty of ‘correcting abuses’ and joins AT&T in declaring to the public that ‘bribery wins’ and ‘bribed votes do count’ in Oklahoma,” Anthony wrote in a 200-page dissenting opinion. “Respectfully, I dissent.”
The AT&T bribery refund applicants immediately appealed the OCC’s decision to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. But just days before Christmas 2017, the state’s highest court issued an 8-1 decision upholding the OCC’s dismissal while completely ignoring both the new evidence of fraud and the constitutional questions about bribery raised in the applicants’ appeal. Notably, Chief Justice Douglas L. Combs dissented from the decision of the court’s other justices.
“Eight justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court have joined a long list of Corporation Commissioners and Attorneys General who have not just neglected their sworn duties as state officeholders, they have willfully failed to perform them,” wrote applicant and former commanding general of Tinker Air Force Base Richard A. Burpee in a scathing response. Calling their failure to overturn the bribery “dereliction of duty,” Burpee said, “These officials should be relieved of their duties. … In the military, they would be court-martialed.”
“[D]enying citizens the right to further petition their legislative bodies on legislative matters – especially matters involving proven public corruption – threatens and undermines our very republican form of government,” the petition to the U.S. Supreme Court argues. “The high importance of this case to the public interest, both from a monetary standpoint and from the standpoint of harm done – now and in the future – to ‘the good order of society,’ warrants review[.]”
In September 2016, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) cited “compelling evidence of intrinsic fraud utilized by Southwestern Bell Telephone Company” and “criminal activity” in a filing seeking to join the AT&T bribery refund case. Although the OCC dismissed the DOD’s motion when it dismissed the bribery refund application, a similar attempt to join the case at the federal level would likely be accepted. Refunds due for thousands of phone lines at military installations and federal agencies across the state are at stake.
“The bribery in this case isn’t alleged; it was proven beyond a reasonable doubt and upheld on appeal,” said former Special Agent-in-Charge of the FBI in Oklahoma Bob Ricks who assisted in the original investigation and is another of the bribery refund applicants taking the case to the United States Supreme Court. “I’m confident the U.S. Supreme Court will see this case for what it is – a bribed vote that has been allowed to fester into one of the largest cases of corporate fraud in American history.”
“There is more than just billions of dollars at stake – Oklahoma’s reputation is on the line,” said bribery refund applicant and businessman Rodd Moesel. “For decades, there were massive corruption schemes among county commissioners, corporation commissioners and even at the Oklahoma Supreme Court itself. Some people want to say that’s all water under the bridge. But in the last 15 years, we’ve also had an insurance commissioner and a state auditor convicted of bribery. Now, we have allegations of misappropriated funds at the state Health Department and numerous sheriffs and state legislators recently charged with or convicted of wrongdoing. Getting justice in this case would finally send a message that we’re not going to do business that way in this state anymore.”
“Sometimes it takes an outsider like the United States Supreme Court to hold up a mirror and force you to take a hard look at yourself,” said Mayor Clements. “There are folks in the business community that want to ignore this case and pretend the bribery never happened. But this idea that ‘bribed votes do count’ if you’re a big corporation willing to make big campaign contributions and drag things out in court is contrary to the fundamental values of honesty and fair play held by most Oklahomans. We’ve taken up this cause on behalf of Oklahoma ratepayers because we believe – and we believe they believe – it’s the right thing to do.”
“The unconstitutional defects of the bribed order should have been corrected, and refunds ordered, decades ago when the bribery convictions were confirmed by the United States Court of Appeals,” said expert witness and bribery refund applicant James Proctor. Proctor is the former director of the commission’s Public Utility Division. “Justice further delayed means the potential refund amount will be that much bigger when justice is finally served. At 11.589% interest compounded annually, the $16 billion refund figure estimated in 2015 is growing by more than $100 million each month that the bribed vote remains on the books. That’s serious money, even in Washington D.C.”
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the bribery refund applicants’ petition before the end of its term in early summer.