As Guns sits in on Verizon cases, some grumble about a conflict

Commissioner notes he's ended financial ties with his former employer

May 25, 2002|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

To paraphrase a Verizon commercial, Ronald A. Guns can hear them now.

And some believe that's a conflict of interest.

Guns, a retired Verizon Communications Inc. official and former Maryland legislator, last week began sitting in on Public Service Commission cases involving his former employer - the first time he has done so since the governor appointed him to a $93,000-a-year post on the panel that regulates telephones and other utilities in the state.

He had voluntarily avoided hearings involving telecommunications issues after joining the commission last July. But he recently sought, and received, an opinion from the commission's lawyer that he no longer has financial ties that might preclude him from considering Verizon cases. Having retired last year, he selected a pension plan this spring, concluding his dealings with his employer.

Guns' changed status also comes on the eve of perhaps the most significant case the commission has considered for Verizon: whether to grant it approval to add millions of dollars worth of business in long-distance service to its dominant position in local phone service in Maryland. Verizon seeks state approval before asking the federal government to add long-distance service in Maryland as it has already done in several other states.

"What everybody felt was the highest comfort level was to recuse myself until I had no more financial ties to Verizon," said Guns, 53, who represented the upper Eastern Shore in the Maryland House of Delegates as a Cecil County Democrat from 1983 to 2001. "I decided to lay off until that [pension] option was elected. The offering came out last month and I made the selection and it's not reversible or revocable.

"There's no incentive to treat them in a different way," Guns said of Verizon. He joined the phone company as an installer in 1972 - when it was known as the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. and before the government breakup of the Bell monopoly - and rose to a position in public affairs before retiring last year.

"I probably understand the phone business better than most," he said. "My colleagues look at somebody helping with the workload and there's plenty of workload here. Obviously, I have to be fair and I intend to be. I've got a job to do and I think I can do it."

Nevertheless, his presence at a commission meeting May 15 about Verizon's long-distance application - known as a 271 proceeding - startled executives from competing phone companies and consumer advocates. They said they hadn't been informed that Guns intended to begin hearing Verizon matters, and he did not then explain his change of heart.

"I think that he should put his current status on the record and if he's gotten advice from his general counsel, he should put that on the record and make it available to the public," said Michael J. Travieso, the Maryland People's Counsel who represents consumer interests in utility matters.

`Serious concerns'

"I have serious concerns about Mr. Guns' ability to participate in not only the 271 proceedings, but in any telecommunications proceedings that involve Verizon," said Mark A. Keffer, an AT&T Corp. vice president for law and government affairs. "Mr. Guns may not have any more financial ties to Verizon, but he did have a 29-year career there.

"Let me give you an analogy: Maryland is getting ready to play Duke in the ACC championship in basketball and you find out before the game that the referees were both Duke graduates and professors there for the last 29 years but recently retired. Would you still have concerns about their ability to call the game?"

A company could ask Guns to recuse himself from a case. If he declined to do so, the complainant could seek support from the rest of the commission or, barring that, the State Ethics Commission.

This is not the first time Guns has been accused of entwining public duties and private career. His participation in hearings two years ago on a telecommunications bill Verizon strongly opposed also elicited criticism.

Others, however, this week welcomed his involvement, including some phone competitors and fellow commission members.

"His experience in these issues is a plus, not a minus," said Thomas Mazerski, president and chief executive officer of Close Call America, a 3-year-old phone company based on Kent Island.

"As long as there's no motivation to side with their team and the fact that this is a very complicated game, just to have someone who understands the issues outweighs any of the other analysis," said Mazerski, himself a former 19-year employee of Verizon-predecessor Bell Atlantic Corp.

"These are some of the most complicated legal and policy questions I've ever been confronted with, and I look forward to having another set of eyes on these issues," said J. Joseph Curran III, a commissioner since 1999 and son of Maryland's attorney general.

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