Those who say you can’t fight City Hall have not met people like Bill Whalen or Anne Blake.
Whalen, a 77-year-old retiree who lives in Sanbornton with his wife and two Labradors, has for the past year waged a solitary battle against FairPoint Communications over rate increases on his phone bill that he believes were just not right.
On June 26, he was vindicated by the Public Utilities Commission, which rolled back the increases on Whalen’s bill and ordered retroactive refunds with interest, in a ruling that could affect hundreds of FairPoint customers.
Blake, a college administrator who lives in South Burlington, Vt., has pressed for the past three years to keep the problems of St. John International University in the limelight. The former dean of admissions and student life at the troubled college was vindicated on June 30, when the state Higher Education Commission let the Italian school’s degree-granting authority expire, and decided to take a much harder look at future proposals to grant New Hampshire charters to overseas universities.
Whalen started keeping an eye on his phone bill after the state Legislature in 2012 freed FairPoint of all regulatory oversight, with one exception. The PUC would still have the authority to regulate something called “basic service,” defined as “safe, reliable single-party, single-line voice service.”
The logic was that phone service was no longer a monopoly and should be deregulated, but with a safety net called “basic service.” The legislation limited increases in basic to 10 percent a year, but defined basic narrowly.
Basic service is essentially a dial tone. Any additional features like caller ID, voice mail, call waiting or call forwarding bump the consumer out of basic and into unregulated territory.
When Whalen complained that his monthly charge rose from $6.06 to $10.35, a 70 percent increase, he was told he was not on basic service, which surprised him since he has two lines, each with separate phone numbers, and nothing on each but a dial tone.
First he was told he was bumped out of basic because he subscribed to a third-party, AT&T, for long-distance service, but later was informed that it was because he had multiple lines serving his residence.
Until February, FairPoint used the long-distance argument to boot people out of basic, but stopped that practice after “feedback from commission staff,” according to the PUC ruling. Nonetheless, the ruling states, “FairPoint did not refund or credit customers who had basic service with (third party) long distance carriers, but it changed the rate for those customers going forward.”
Whalen, who used to run data processing and telecommunications for a large insurance company, represented himself at the PUC hearing in March, where he was cross-examined by FairPoint attorneys and questioned by commissioners. In addition to getting a rate reduction and a refund with interest for himself, Whalen has triggered a process that could result in similar refunds to other FairPoint customers who were improperly classified.
“This proceeding has raised additional questions regarding FairPoint’s compliance with the statutory obligation to offer an affordable basic service alternative to all customers, and the transparency of these basic service offerings to customers,” states the PUC ruling.
“We direct staff to confer with FairPoint regarding its basic service policies and procedures, to discuss whether additional refunds may be appropriate, to review the clarity and transparency to customers of its basic service policies and procedures, and to file a report with the commission within 90 days.”
Whalen says he has no ax to grind against FairPoint, and is actually a happy customer, except for the billing issue. “I’ve been very pleased with FairPoint services,” he said.Angelynne Amores Beaudry, director corporate communications at FairPoint, would not comment on the case, but suggested the PUC ruling might be appealed.
“Given that the litigation is ongoing, FairPoint cannot comment at this time,” she said.
Started with high hopes
A university in Greece and another one in Jordan were already operating under the auspices of the state’s Higher Education Commission when lawmakers suggested a third New Hampshire charter for a new school in Italy back in 2009.
State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, introduced SB 26, a bill “relative to degree granting authority for St. John International University,” subject to the approval of the Higher Education Commission.
At first, the school in Torino, Italy, attracted big names to be on its board — people like D’Allesandro, state Sen. Sylvia B. Larsen, D-Concord, and the Rev. Jonathan DeFelice, at the time president of St. Anselm College.
They have all since cut ties with the school, which has been the target of several unpaid wage claims and lawsuits, including a protracted legal battle with its first president, George J. Hagerty, who left Franklin Pierce College to take the job in Italy.
From the outset, the school appeared to lack adequate funding. After four years of consultant reports, investigations, trips to Italy, unfulfilled promises to pay back wages and constant turnover in administration, the Higher Education Commission decided “enough is enough.” After its May 12 meeting, the commission sent SJIU a letter demanding responses to seven specific questions by June 20.“It was the assessment of the commission that the institution was not fully responsive to those requests,” said Ed MacKay, commission director and former chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire. “The commission voted unanimously to take no action with regard to SJIU and allow its degree-granting authority to expire.”Prominent lobbyist and Concord attorney Jim Bianco, who served as a board member and New Hampshire contact for SJIU, declined to comment on behalf of the institution.
A house of cards
Monday’s decision marked the end of a long road for Blake, who had worked with Hagerty at Franklin Pierce and went to Italy with high hopes, along with former FPU administrator Marybeth Benbenek, who signed on as dean of admissions.
Blake warned the commission back in September 2012 that SJIU was a house of cards.
She told the board at the time, “This is a mockery of higher education, and I cannot believe that this is allowed at a school in New Hampshire.”
One of the commissioners suggested she write a letter. She did that and much more for the next two years.
As with Whalen’s phone bill, the amount of money at stake is not huge, and the number of students affected is probably in the 20 to 40 range, according to MacKay. But that’s not the issue.
“The amount of money I’m owed is very modest,” Blake said after the 2012 meeting. “I am doing this for the principle of the thing, and I’m not going to back down.”
On Wednesday, she was not relishing the outcome.
“It’s a moral victory that SJIU can no longer continue the charade of advertising itself as an American university,” she said. “However, what is very sad is that there are many people who will probably never be paid the money that has been owed them, as well as the difficult situation that is now faced by students who were attending SJIU. It will be the responsibility of the NHHEC to help them in this transition.”
And Blake will be watching.