Disability Rights Advocates Opposition Letter to Chong Nomination to CPUC

DRA opposes the confirmation of Rachelle Chong because she has consistently advocated for the largest players in the telecommunication industry, and has not taken any steps to protect the interests of vulnerable consumers.

December 22, 2006

Senator Don Perata,
President pro tem,
Chair Senate Rules Committee
California State Senate
Sacramento, CA 95814

Re: Opposition to the Confirmation of Rachelle Chong to the California Public Utilities Commission

Dear Senator Perata:

Disability Rights Advocates opposes the confirmation of Rachelle Chong as a member of the Public Utilities Commission, and asks the Senate to take the unusual step of declining to confirm her appointment. This is a request we make reluctantly. As relative newcomers to practice before the Commission, we cannot speak with the institutional knowledge of other consumer groups regarding procedural irregularities or potential conflicts of interest related to Ms. Chong’s service. However, in our efforts to protect the rights of a particularly vulnerable and underserved community, we have seen that Ms. Chong has consistently advocated for the largest players in the telecommunication industry, and has not taken any steps to protect the interests of vulnerable consumers.

As an example, Disability Rights Advocates has consistently pointed out that the basic service needs of telecommunication consumers with disabilities is different from those of the general population, and has provided evidence that many members of this population are unable to obtain effective service from most new technologies. Despite uncontested evidence to this effect in the recent proceeding that effectively deregulated all telecom services, Ms. Chong has led efforts to disregard issues facing disabled consumers, and consign them to a separate proceeding focusing on special programs for this group. By relegating the needs of this consumer class to a “disability ghetto” and refusing to acknowledge that there is basically no competition for the disability market (who obtain phone service almost exclusively from large incumbent carriers), Ms. Chong has effectively signaled that the needs of this group of Californians is less important than the goals of the telecom giants to be free of the last vestiges of effective regulation.

The role of the Public Utilities Commission is to ensure that consumers have safe, reliable utility service at reasonable rates, and to protect them from potential corporate abuses such as fraud and marketing abuse. A commissioner whose priority is to implement an anti-regulatory ideology cannot effectively guard the public interest.

Further examples of Ms. Chong’s anti-consumer orientation are abundant, despite her relatively brief tenure to date on the Commission. Ms. Chong supported the dismantling of the Consumer Bill of Rights and the substitution of an ineffective “Consumer Protection Initiative,” which puts the burden on consumers to decipher the fine print in phone company materials, and gives them no remedy but to decline to purchase service. This burden to all consumers is particularly harsh for people with disabilities, who spend more of their disproportionately low income than average consumers on telecommunications services, but whose needs are often greater than the average consumer, even to obtain only the equivalent of basic service. Ms. Chong also indicated that there is virtually no consumer protection provision that she will support, based on her opposition to SB 440 (Speier), allowing phone subscribers to more easily dispute charges on a lost or stolen cell phone, as well as AB 2622 (Ruskin) and AB 1010 (Ruskin), each of which would have reinstated the provision of the Bill of Rights granting customers 30 days to cancel new phone service before a termination penalty could be charged.

Since joining the Commission, Ms. Chong has consistently declined to act on behalf of consumers, and has instead favored giant utilities whose actions are subject to regulation. She is not an appropriate person to serve as a guardian of the public interest. We urge the Senate to decline to confirm Rachelle Chong for a term on the Public Utilities Commission.

Very truly yours,
Melissa W. Kasnitz
Managing Attorney

cc: Members of the Senate Rules Committee

DDRA Chong