Telcos Dodge Suit Claiming They Overcharged For Wiretaps, But At Least They'll Have To Pay Their Own Legal Costs
from the not-so-hard-justice dept
AT&T and Verizon’s ultra-close relationship with government surveillance efforts have been profitable in innumerable ways. Obviously being a loyal patriot means you’ll have a better chance of grabbing multi-billion dollar military and government communications contracts. Carriers also pass on most of the costs of outfitting their network for easier surveillance (like those live fiber splits AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein exposed) directly to you, the consumer. Lastly as we’ve discussed more than a few times whenever pricing sheets leak, they make a pretty penny on law enforcement wiretap requests. Maybe a bit too pretty.
Back in 2009, former New York Deputy Attorney General John Prather filed a lawsuit on behalf of the U.S. government, accusing Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and Qwest (now CenturyLink) of overcharging federal, state and city governments for services under CALEA. Prather, who helped lead the NY AG’s Organized Crime Task Force from 2002 to 2008 as part of thirty years as a prosecutor, was intimately familiar with wiretap procedure and spent years in charge of invoices for wiretap provisioning. Prather claimed telcos had aggressively been price gouging law enforcement for some time, jacking up prices year over year without any sensible explanation why some wiretaps should cost in some cases $50,000 to $100,000 each.
Prather claims he filed a complaint with the FCC in 2004, who did nothing about it. Prather’s lawsuit was dismissed a few months back (pdf) after the court claimed his insights were conjecture in that he didn’t provide enough first hand evidence of fraud. That degree of proof was required because, according to telco lawyers, Prather technically couldn’t file a whistle blower lawsuit under the False Claim Act and claim he himself was the “original source of the information” — because he filed the original complaint while working for the government.
As a tiny win however, the court this week stated that phone company lawyers couldn’t prove that Prather was filing the lawsuit simply to harass the phone companies, and as such they’re be required to at least pay their own legal costs related to the case:
“Furthermore, the phone companies “fail to show that Relator’s action was ‘clearly vexatious’ or ‘brought primarily for purposes of harassment’ as there is no evidence that relator pursued this litigation merely to annoy or embarrass defendants,” the ruling states. “Conversely, Relator asserts that he brought this action ‘in an attempt to bring to light the fraud of the telecommunications carriers, and to help insure that the Law Enforcement Agencies would not be hindered in their investigation of crime.'”
Understand that Verizon and AT&T have a long and proud history of taking all manner of subsidies, tax breaks or other incentives for services never delivered, and when they do deliver, over-charging like any good unaccountable government contractor. The combination of excellent lawyers, an apathetic government afraid of taking on larger companies and the fact that phone companies are simply damn good at it — has historically allowed them to get away with pretty much whatever they’ve wanted. Actually requiring the phone companies to pay their own lawyers may not not sound like much, but when AT&T and Verizon lawyers are involved, it’s dramatically more than you’ll usually see in cases like this.