Qwest questions regulator's contacts
By Tom Meersman and Mark Brunswick
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Friday, September 10, 2005

Attorneys for Qwest Corp. filed dozens of e-mails and phone records in federal court this week, saying they raise serious questions about communications between a former Public Utilities Commissioner and an AT&T attorney.

Qwest requested the documents from the commission last month after learning that former commission member Greg Scott had placed more than 100 calls from his government phone between July 2002 and May 2004 to the office and cell phone of Mary Tribby, who was chief regulatory counsel for AT&T, one of Qwest's competitors.

Scott is already under investigation over whether he violated state laws by discussing a job with Integra, an Oregon-based telephone company with operations in Minnesota.  He resigned as commissioner before his term expired, accepted a job with Integra in mid-2004, and left the firm last month.

Scott and Integra have said they did nothing wrong.

In its action this week, Qwest presented the e-mails and phone logs between Scott and AT&T's Tribby in support of its motion filed in late August to delay or rescind a $25.9 million fine that the company was ordered to pay by the commission.

"Those e-mails that are available ... appear to reflect substantive discussion of matters before the MN PUC and numerous personal communications" between the two individuals, wrote Peter Spivack, an attorney representing Qwest.

State rules prohibit public utility commissioners from discussing pending cases privately with any companies involved in the proceeding.

Scott's attorney Doug Kelley said that Scott did nothing wrong in his discussions about employment with Integra, or in his communications with AT&T.  Kelley also has said there is nothing improper about regulatory attorneys and commissioners maintaining a friendly relationship.

"To date, Qwest has nothing more than the inference that, if they talked, they must have talked about something bad, and that is not enough to vacate the pending judgment," Kelley said.

Tribby, now working in private practice in a Denver law office, did not return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment.

PUC, AT&T responses

The commission filed its own legal response Tuesday, and asked the court to reject Qwest's motion or take it under advisement until the commission itself has determined whether state rules were violated.  "Contact between a commissioner and an attorney is not a per se violation, even if the attorney is appearing in front of the commission on one or more contested matters," according to Steven Alpert, an attorney for the PUC.

AT&T attorneys also filed a response Tuesday, arguing that Qwest is not entitled to relief from the fine, that the allegations about improper communications have not been proven, and that the e-mails in question were written well after the commission had ordered Qwest to pay the $25.9 million fine.

AT&T also has responded to the PUC on Qwest's request for an expanded investigation, suggesting that Qwest's action may be simply an attempt to delay paying the record fine on the basis of "nothing more than insinuations and innuendo."

"It is possible that Qwest is motivated by spite," attorneys wrote, "or a desire to potentially embarrass Mr. Scott or AT&T."

The e-mails reflect a warm friendship between Scott and Tribby, and the commission is in the early stages of checking whether that communication may have become improper.

Many of the e-mails between the two individuals contain banter beyond what might be seen as routine professional correspondences, including discussions about such things as radio personality Laura Schlesinger's views on homosexuality.

In a Dec. 3, 2003, message, Tribby appears to acknowledge a gift, although it is not clear what type of gift:

"THE (bar none) most beautiful, most thoughtful, most meaningful, most selfless, most lasting (as I tried to explain) gift of my life.  You're just the best.  Thanks for making this small town girl's Christmas."

In another exchange that begins on May 12, 2004, Scott asks Tribby if she thinks his move is the right thing to do, apparently referring to his pending resignation from the commission.

Tribby:  "Good for you. I am glad for you."

Scott:  "How glad?"

Tribby:  "Hmmm ... Very, if it leads to what you want, and I have no doubt that it will."

Scott:  "If you have no doubt that it will, then you must know what I want.  What is it that I want, please?"

Tribby:  "Ultimately, a peaceful, simple, gentle, compassionate life, surrounded by those you love (hopefully, but not always, the same thing as those who love you), with work (whether it is a job or not is unclear) that is meaningful, fulfilling and at least a little bit challenging."

Scott:  "wow, ok, I'll take it."

The writers are at
and meersman@startribune.com