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MCI WorldCom Investigated in Georgia for Phone Overcharges; State Senator Involved

MCI WorldCom owns the exclusive contract to provide phone services to the 45,000 prisoners incarcerated in the State of Georgia. Of course, the prisoners are only allowed to place collect calls, and have no choice on which company to use. The state decides that for them. It's MCI WorldCom or nothing. For much of August and September of 2001, family or friends of Georgia prisoners heard a recorded message prior to accepting the call that stated that the rates for the call would be $2.44 for the first minute, and 24 cents for each additional minute.

But, in fact, the actual bill was more than double. Those who accepted the collect calls were actually billed $4.64 for the first minute, and 69 cents for each additional minute. In August alone, MCI WorldCom collected more than $1.5 million on 158,796 calls. Their contract with Georgia DOC calls for the state to receive a 65 percent kickback on all prisoner calls, which gave them more than a $1 million windfall on the overcharges.

Neither the state nor MCI WorldCom will say what they will do with their portion of the money that the Corrections Department concedes was improperly collected. But MCI WorldCom has other problems over its phone service. In October 2001, the Georgia Public Service Commission opened an investigation into complaints the telecommunications giant is charging separate connection and per-minute charges, a violation of state tariff rules. MCI WorldCom's contracts at municipal jails are also being looked at.

The company blames the overcharges and the deceiving message on "software errors." The message has since been corrected.

Despite the correction of the message, MCI WorldCom's collect call rates for Georgia prisoners (as well as rates for all prison collect calls across the country) far exceed the rates charged for non-prison calls. And in MCI WorldCom's case, the rates they charge Georgia prisoners are double what Sprint, their predecessor, had charged for the same phone calls. A 10-minute call that had cost $5.00 with Sprint now costs $10.00 with MCI WorldCom.

Along with the investigation into the overcharging issue, the State Ethics Commission is investigating Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker's mixing of state business with his family-owned firm.

The family company, CresTech, is a subcontractor to MCI WorldCom and is involved in the process of modernizing Georgia's prisoner phone system.

In September 2001, MCI WorldCom and CresTech completed a contract with the Department of Corrections that will bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the state and the telecommunications companies.

Walker failed to disclose that he had an interest in CresTech on paperwork he filed with the Secretary of State. Walker also failed to disclose an interest in Georgia Personnel Services until a journalist raised questions about the omission.

In September 2001, the state Ethics Commission was ready to hold a preliminary hearing into Walker's possible violations of Georgia's ethics laws. Walker then requested an extension, which was automatically granted.

Officials with the Department of Corrections and MCI WorldCom claim they were not aware that CresTech is partly owned by one of the most powerful elected officials in Georgia. "WorldCom was not aware of any relationship with CresTech's owner," said MCI spokesperson Natasha Haubold.

Aside from the apparent conflict of interest, and the issue of failure to disclose this interest, questions must be raised concerning why an elected official is involved with a company that blatantly overcharges and gouges prisoners' families who accept calls from their loved ones in jail.

"I know it's a privilege [for prisoners] to talk to families," said James Anderson of Gainesville, who talks to his father, who's serving five years. "If they want to put somebody in jail, they ought to put the person there who set up this plan."

Mike Light, a spokesperson for the state agency that runs the prisons in Georgia, says that the money that was improperly collected through the overcharges could be repaid by refund or vouchers for future service.

Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution .

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