DOJ Threatens to Sue Maine PUC

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
August 2, 2006 12:00 am

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MCLU Says Mainers Deserve Answers

PORTLAND, ME – The United States Department of Justice has threatened to sue the Maine Public Utilities Commission if it decides to open an investigation into Verizon Maine’s cooperation with the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program. In a letter dated Friday, July 28, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Peter Keisler cited the DOJ’s history of issuing lawsuits in response to similar investigations in New Jersey and Missouri.

“The DOJ is going after each state commission that dares do its job to protect the privacy and interests of the citizens in that state,” said Shenna Bellows, Executive Director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which intervened on behalf of the people who called for the investigation. “Threatening to sue anyone who asks questions is the federal government’s way of keeping the public in the dark about its actions. It sets a dangerous precedent.”

A complaint filed in May by 22 Verizon customers, and later signed on to by almost 400 Mainers, asks the Maine PUC to investigate whether Verizon disclosed call records of its Maine customers without the customers’ knowledge or legal authorization. Verizon asked the PUC to drop the case on the grounds that an investigation would require confirming or denying information that it claims it could neither confirm nor deny.

The subsequent Department of Justice letter claims that state commissions governing utilities within the state do not have the authority to interfere with federal matters involving those utilities. The Maine Civil Liberties Union pointed out that the question of whether Verizon Maine handed over the records of its customers in the state, regardless of who may have received the records, is governed by state privacy law as well as federal statute.

“This is a situation where the federal government may have violated the rights of the citizens,” said Doug Cowie, who took the lead in asking the PUC to investigate. “Mainers have the right to know if their private records have been shared without their knowledge, and it is the duty of the public utilities commission to help them find out. The PUC should not be bullied into protecting private corporations from public scrutiny.”

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