A group billing itself as a "grass roots" coalition of consumers and businesses" launched a campaign yesterday to abolish "the monopoly that allows Bell Atlantic to control local telephone service in Maryland."
But while some of the "roots" of the Real Choices/Fair Prices Coalition might be authentic, much of the "fertilizer" was provided by MCI and AT&T, two telecommunications giants that are gearing up to compete with Bell Atlantic in the local exchange in Maryland.
While the group's literature does not mention MCI or AT&T, executive director Jeff Noah said under questioning by reporters that both companies have made commitments to help fund the coalition.
Spokesmen for AT&T and MCI confirmed that the companies had agreed to help bankroll the group. They said the amount had not yet been determined.
Dan Greenfield, an MCI spokesman, said the coalition-building effort was "something we've done in states all over the country."
But Shannon Fioravanti, a spokeswoman for Bell Atlantic, expressed outrage at the tactic.
"It would be pretty shameless if these two humongous companies were using ordinary citizens to articulate their positions," she said.
Judging by the coalition's performance of yesterday, Bell Atlantic has little to worry about. The "broad-based advocacy group" mustered one paid staffer, two businessmen, one consumer and one pollster at the news conference, which included a luncheon spread for the media at the posh Center Club.
Mr. Noah, a self-described "civic activist" from Montgomery County, said he was hired two weeks ago to lead the group's effort. But he said he had no idea who founded the organization or how it was formed.
"I don't know Mr. or Mrs. Joe Blow who got the idea to found the coalition," he said.
But, according to Neal Cohen, executive vice president of APCO Associates in Washington, that wasn't quite true. He said his public affairs consulting firm, acting on behalf of MCI, had organized the coalition and had brought Mr. Noah aboard to run it.
Asked about Mr. Noah's denial, Mr. Cohen said, "He screwed up."
The stated purpose of the coalition is to be an advocate before the Public Service Commission and in other forums for increased competition, wider choices and lower prices in the Maryland telephone business.
But Mr. Noah showed little knowledge of where Maryland stands in its move toward telephone competition. He advocated that the PSC take actions it has already taken. And when asked about critical issues in current proceedings, he displayed an unfamiliarity with the basic terminology of telephone regulation.
"We don't claim to be experts," he said.
In fact, the episode provided a revealing glimpse into how such "grass roots" coalitions often get their start.
Mr. Cohen said that after the recent passage of federal telecommunications legislation, MCI approached his company, which specializes in "grass roots coalition building," for advice on how to educate the public about its views.
The APCO executive said his company agreed to test the waters and see whether the public agreed with MCI's position and then to try to build a coalition around the principle of supporting competition.
He said he approached AT&T and received a commitment of support from that company as well.
"We will not build that coalition just on behalf of AT&T and MCI because that coalition will be fraudulent," Mr. Cohen said. "It's all about reputation in this business and integrity."