City sought cable firms' silence on late-fees accord

Mayoral lieutenant asked 'as little media attention as possible'

June 08, 2000|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

The head of the Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications said she's proud of the $7.59 million cable late-fees settlement her office helped win, but she asked the cable companies to help keep settlement details quiet.

In a letter dated May 31, MOCC Director Marilyn Harris-Davis reminded Michael Hewitt, area director of Tele-Communications Inc. of Baltimore, that June 5 was the deadline for consumers to submit requests for their refunds. But Harris-Davis also wrote: "Obviously, we would like to settle this matter quickly and quietly. ... It would be in the best interest of all parties concerned for this settlement to be handled with as little media attention as possible."

The settlement money stemmed from a class action lawsuit filed in 1997, accusing the city's cable provider of gouging customers with $5 late fees. Circuit Judge Gary I. Strausberg ordered United Cable Television of Baltimore, formerly owned by TCI and now owned by AT&T Corp., to charge 50 cents and return the difference to the 35,000 to 40,000 customers who paid $5 late fees. Factoring in litigation costs, consumers are to receive about $3.60 per fee.

The judge also ruled that the MOCC would receive half the funds that were unclaimed after June 5. The Children's Education Trust Fund, a nonprofit organization the settlement created to finance cable and television equipment in schools, gets the other half. The Court of Appeals upheld the ruling in July.

United Cable Television of Baltimore must report to the court how much money is left within 90 days of the deadline. Brian Eberle, an attorney representing the cable company, said it would take a few weeks to know precisely what the city's take was.

Harris-Davis said yesterday that she wasn't trying to hide the outcome of what has been a public crusade for her office.

"TCI, as a company, has had a tendency to drag its feet," she said. "I didn't want media attention to start muddying the waters. ... I didn't want them to start trying the case again."

Her attempts at discretion appear to have backfired. Philip Friedman, an attorney representing cable subscribers, fired off his own letter to Harris-Davis, stating that the MOCC had an obligation to tell how the funds were used.

"I don't know why you'd want to keep any of this quiet," Friedman said. "They played such an important role, I'd suspect this is something they'd be proud of."

Friedman said he had even wondered if the powerful cable lobby had wielded some influence in the mayor's office. He credits the cable lobby for pushing the state legislature to authorize a variety of businesses to charge monthly late fees of up to $5, or 10 percent of the overdue payment. The measure, passed in April, renders moot many of Friedman's other cases challenging such fees.

Harris-Davis, a press aide during Mayor Martin O'Malley's campaign, bristled at such suggestions. She said the office continues to support Friedman's efforts for lower late fees. During the suit, three staffers worked full-time documenting customers' complaints.

Friedman talked to Harris-Davis and said he was satisfied with her explanation. But he still believes that the public should know how the city will spend the money. That, too, is no secret, Harris-Davis said. The office plans to use it to monitor cable mergers, cable company construction, licensing and fees for cable lines.

Tony White, O'Malley's press secretary, said the mayor was unaware of Harris-Davis' letter, and that the administration was not concerned about it. "She was trying to do this as discreetly as possible, to give the impression all parties involved were being cooperative," he said.

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