Show Me the Money: Verizon Opportunity New Jersey Fiber Optic Overcharging: Over $15 Billion and Counting
In 1993, Verizon New Jersey convinced the Garden State that they would replace 100% of the aging copper wires of the state-based Public Switched Telephone Networks (PSTN) -- the utility, with a fiber optic wire capable of 45 Mbps in both directions and it would be completed by 2010. Residential and business customers, municipalities as well as schools and libraries would all have a fast lane on the information superhighway. But there was a catch: Verizon wanted customers to pay for the building as the claimed they would use this excess booty on upgrading the networks. Known as "Opportunity New Jersey," the laws were changed and it started the clock to give Verizon more profits and tax breaks. The question becomes: How much money did Verizon get from these deregulatory gifts? I've been asked how I calculated Verizon New Jersey's overcharging of customers and my answer is -- slowly, carefully and using Verizon's own data (and I started tracking the financials for a chapter in my first book, published in 1998). And it comes to about $15 billion dollars and counting and this is actually the low number, as I will discuss. (FYI-- This same deregulatory con happened in every state. And though it varies by state, now-AT&T, Verizon and Centurylink all claimed that they would upgrade their states' networks if the laws were changed. We estimate about $380 billion and counting nationwide has been collected for the fiber optic replacements of the copper networks. More about this in the next few stories.) In fact, in the telecom circles this financial bait and switch has become known as: "Kushnick's Law: A regulated company will always renege on promises to provide public benefits tomorrow in exchange for regulatory and financial benefits today." Show Me the Money It is said that one picture is worth 1,000 words -- Here is the 'money shot.' Phase 1: The Info Highway Scam The chart above shows the increase to Verizon New Jersey's profits from 1990-through 1999. I call it Phase 1. The standard returns for a utility for decades prior to this deregulation were about 10%-12% -- that's the "utility normal" line at the bottom of the chart. The overall profits for the state-based companies, like Verizon New Jersey, were about 15%-20%. (i.e., this includes not just the networks but the other revenues and fees.) As you can see, after the law was passed -- it was Christmas, Chanukah, and any other holiday where gifts are received. Verizon New Jersey's profits jumped from 20% to 40%, dividends had massive increases, and Verizon was able to start writing off the networks faster and used this as 'tax benefits'. In fact, in 1993, Verizon New Jersey took a $1 billion dollar tax write-off, claiming that they were replacing the copper landlines with fiber optic landlines. NOTE: In 1993 the company was called New Jersey Bell, then changed to Bell Atlantic-New Jersey, then to Verizon New Jersey. Imagine if your business profits doubled or tripled in one year without you doing anything extra, and it stayed that way for years. But don't take my word for this new found wealth. In 1997, Economics & Technology wrote a report which included Opportunity New Jersey. "Under the Opportunity New Jersey (ONJ) Plan, Bell Atlantic-New Jersey *(now Verizon New Jersey) has enjoyed major financial benefits even though it has not increased its investment as promised and has opposed competition at every turn. The increased pricing and earnings flexibility coupled with reduced investment and continued monopoly pricing practices has enabled BA-NJ's profits to soar under alternative regulation. Consumers clearly have suffered under the ONJ Plan from unnecessarily inflated prices for many services, and have received few benefits in the form of new services and increased competitive choices." The report continues: "Since the adoption of the ONJ Plan in 1993: "BA-NJ's financial return on equity (ROE) jumped from 22% to almost 40%. "Rather than put those profits back into its telecommunications infrastructure, BA-NJ actually disinvested some76-million between 1993 and 1995." ("Disinvestment" is to write-off more than you put into new construction.) In 1997, BA-NJ provided a559-million dividend to its parent -- equating to approximately93.17 per access line per year (or7.76 per line per month). By way of comparison, BA NY's dividend was only42.52 on a per-access line basis (3.54 per line per month)." And even the New Jersey Ratepayer Advocate made it clear that Verizon New Jersey got the opportunity to make more money -- faster. In an interview with the New York Times, April, 1997, the NJ Advocate stated: "...'people have paid for the fiber optic lines through their monthly bills', she said, 'but they have not yet benefited'." The Advocate also wrote a biting review of the status of Verizon New Jersey's fiber optic deployment: "Bell Atlantic-New Jersey (BA-NJ) has over-earned, underspent and inequitably deployed advanced telecommunications technology to business customers, while largely neglecting schools and libraries, low-income and residential ratepayers and consumers in Urban Enterprise Zones as well as urban and rural areas." In fact, according to the NJ Advocate, Verizon New Jersey only spent $79 million on construction, instead of the $1.5 billion that was promised. "Although BA-NJ projected that it would expend approximately $1.5 billion in network investment above 'business as usual' by the end of 1999.... However, the Ratepayer Advocate has calculated that BA-NJ has spent a total of $79 million above 'business as usual' over these years."(1992-1995) The Advocate continued. By 1997, almost one billion dollars of excess profits and a return on equity almost twice what a regulated monopoly should be making was their reward. "Since the time of the adoption of the ONJ Plan, BA-NJ has received enormous financial benefits, greatly in excess of the Company's original projections. The gains captured by BA-NJ, which probably would not have been achievable but for the Plan, as set forth immediately below, involve earnings, dividends, return on equity, cost of debt and additional benefits." During this period (1992-1995): "BA-NJ paid out an additional954.8 million in dividends* over what was projected in 1992." (1992-1995) *Dividends, in this case, are the monies that New Jersey Bell paid to Bell Atlantic, the holding company. And there were lots of ways to make more money. This simplest -- the company got rid of most regulations on almost all of the ancillary services like calling features, such as Call Waiting, Call Forwarding or Caller ID, or raised rates on unpublished numbers or inside wiring -- you name it. This chart is from the Florida Public Service Commission from 1999. It shows that while Call Waiting cost less than one cent to offer it had a $3.99 profit per item, per month, while Caller ID had a $7.28 profit margin -- and this was about 15 years ago. Should I go on? Well, what's a few billion between friends? Unfortunately, by 2006, Verizon New Jersey had not deployed any fiber optic residential services. So where did all the money go? Phase 2: Shear Gluttony, Massive Losses In 2002 we wrote a series of reports on the Bell company financials, which covered 1999 through the first half of 2002. Verizon had lost money or took tax deductions totaling $17 billion dollars which were driven by massive overseas losses and mergers. The company took a massive $4.7.billion dollar write-off in Cable & Wireless, NTL and Metromedia Fiber. Moreover, the South American investments caused problems. For example, Verizon took a charge of $672 million for its holdings in CTI, a cellular subsidiary in Argentina, and in the second quarter of 2002, Verizon took a $1.4 billion write-off for their investment in Compania Anonima Nacional Telefonos de Venezuela (CANTV). Then we have gluttony: Ivan Seidenberg, Verizon's CEO -- from 1999 through 2001: Made54 million in salary, bonus and retirement funds, as well as stock options of 2.6 million shares, estimated value between83-215 million dollars Base salary went up 25% over the three years while his bonuses and "awards" were 1045% above salary. According to the BellTel Retirees, staffers with 30 years at the company hadn't gotten a cost of living increase in a decade. But the other senior executives also prospered as the mergers of Bell Atlantic and GTE, which created Verizon, allowed them to get stock which had an estimated value of $424 million to over $1 billion dollars -- even though the company had massive losses overseas. And yet, in New Jersey, Verizon annual infrastructure reports claimed that the company was fulfilling their obligations to fiberize the state -- even though nothing had been done. Feeling kind of nauseous or light-headed? We recommend 'Meclizine', the active ingredient in Dramamine. By end of 2009, we went back and examined every year and estimated that the company had collected between $13-$17 billion extra from 1992-2009, from excess depreciation, excess dividend payments, added expenses dumped in to the costs like charging customers for name changes (Bell Atlantic when it combined with NYNEX, or the creation of Verizon, etc.) or the related the merger expenses, and every else that had nothing to do with upgrading the state of New Jersey's networks. In fact, Verizon New Jersey underspent about $1.0 to $2.7 billion dollars on construction by 2009, monies that should have been spent to do the upgrades. Meanwhile, over the last decade there have been no state audits to examine the books; there has been no tracking of overseas payments or executive pay or anything else by the State. And the NJBPU never even bothered to fully examine the filings of Verizon NJ to see if the company was on track and had done the upgrades as promised. Part 3: Oh, But, It Gets Worse, 2009-2014. For the last three years, (2011-2013), the Top 4 Verizon executives made $113.4 million dollars in salaries and Lowell McAdam, CEO, alone made $53 million. And note that McAdam will get paid $37 million if he leaves or is kicked out, or he dies. That's $37,097,309.00 to be exact. (Source, Verizon Proxy Statement, 2014) And another kicker-- In 2009, Verizon corporate showed 367 companies that they invested in or owned in over 150 countries. But when I said it is going to get worse, it's not just a turn of phrase. I meant it. We have filed comments with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, which outlines a series of OPRA, "Open Public Record Act," requests and a call for an investigation, which I will explain in the next few articles. Why? Because Verizon is hiding their financial secrets. Starting in 2007, the FCC stopped publishing any data on state-based companies, like Verizon New Jersey. In 2010, Verizon stopped publishing the state-based SEC reports, and the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities never made the company's financial books public. And the corporate annual reports are more fairy-tale like as they have no granularity of the details so there's nothing about, for example, Verizon's New Jersey's financials. But, what we do have for the year 2010, the last year, might make your hair stand on end. Let me give you just a couple of items Paid no taxes: For 2009 and 2010, the last data available, you probably paid more taxes than Verizon New Jersey. The company posted massive losses of $786 million with an income tax benefit of $321 million, which was used by the corporate parent to lower their tax base. We suspect that losses for 2011-2013 are larger. Isn't FiOS profitable? (I'll get to that in the next few articles.) To end this tale, we should tell you about one of the affiliate companies, something called "Verizon Services," which is a garbage pail of expenses that dumps them into the utility, helping to create these losses. This kitchen sink of expenses may include, well, everything from the executive pay, the lobbying to harm you, the lawyers to defend Verizon against you, and the pay-offs using their foundation monies to shut up those non-profits and minority groups that have lost their way and now work for their funding sources and not their own constituents. Who is Verizon Services? This is from Verizon New Jersey's 4th quarter, 2010 report. "We (Verizon New Jersey) have contractual arrangements with Verizon Services for the provision of various centralized services. ...These services include marketing, sales, legal, accounting, finance, data processing, materials management, procurement, labor relations, and staff support for various network operations. The second category is comprised of overhead and support services which generally benefit all subsidiaries of Verizon. Such services include corporate governance, corporate finance, external affairs, legal, media relations, employee communications, corporate advertising, human resources, treasury, and rent expenses associated with the rental of facilities and equipment." In our next few articles we will discuss the massive cross-subsidies that caused the losses and more overcharging of customers that we anticipated. To conclude, the $15 billion number was our 'average' estimate from 2009. With these new revelations since the last published SEC reports, it could be $20 billion or more and counting by the end of 2014.
Co-authored by Alvaro Salas and Antonio J. Henríquez García of Cornell University. Biographies listed below. The current crisis of Venezuela is, as anyone might expect, much more complex than a simple ideological clash between socialists and capitalists. Simply put, the Venezuelan crisis has been the result of a historical social struggle of the poor to acquire a place in society while the entire population from rich to poor, faces a political playing field that is increasingly plagued by corruption, economic collapse, and destructive violence. Following the end of the infamous military dictatorial regime led by General Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958, Venezuela entered a long period of democratic stability. This period, lasting for a about forty years experienced stable democracies led by two political parties Acción Democrática (AD) and Copei. Nevertheless, albeit stable, these two parties had been founded and ruled by right wing, often wealthy politicians to whom the nearly 61 percent of the Venezuelan population that lived in abject poverty by the year 1997 could not relate. What is the connection between the forty-year period of right wing democracy and Venezuela's current social crisis? Unsurprisingly, where forty years of AD and Copei were able to maintain a period of stable democracy, the oligarchical rule forged a deep, collective social resentment from the proletariat population against the aristocratic and right-leaning ruling class. The year 1992 proved to be the first breaking point in Venezuela's social struggle. The then constitutional president, Carlos Andrés Pérez had been severely criticized for implementing neoliberal economic reforms that benefitted only the upper classes. In the 1989 clashes known as the "Caracazo," massive popular protests against Pérez's government were violently suppressed by military forces. Following the riots, a young lieutenant of the armed forces named Hugo Chávez led an unsuccessful yet widely supported coup attempt against Pérez on February 4, 1992. Shortly after, Pérez was impeached on charges of embezzlement. It is only reasonable that Hugo Chávez's later election and reelection was at least in great part a result of his populist image of a working-class patriot who sought to empower the poor against an elitist and corrupt society. Images from VenezuelaAnalysis.com Thus began the story of Venezuela's Twenty-First Century Socialist Experiment. Hugo Chávez, a man who possessed great charisma, advocated a discourse of socialism and social equality and attacked the aristocratic regimes that had come before, effectively winning the support of much of the middle class. At the same time, Chávez's regime quickly became radicalized. What first began as a gradual nationalizing of private corporations, led to the silencing of anti-government media (namely RCTV, the country's oldest and largest television and radio network), revision of the constitution to allow for unlimited presidential reelection, socialist indoctrination in public schools, spiteful attacks against American imperialism, and the forging of strong political alignments with other leftist governments of other Latin American countries namely the Lula, Morales, Kirshner, Mujica, Ortega and Castro regimes in Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Nicaragua and Cuba respectively. It is undeniable that Chávez's "socialist" regime was effective in empowering the working class, improving literacy rates, and drastically lowering poverty levels. In a campaign named Mision Mercal, a chain of government-subsidized grocery stores was set up with the purpose of making basic needs such as meat, milk, bread, fruits, and vegetables, accessible to the large, underprivileged community. These products would then sell at 39% below the regular market price. A report published by the Agencia Venezolana de Noticias, under the Venezuelan Ministry of Communication and Information, concerning one of Chávez administration's most highly acclaimed social programs, Misión Robinson, which aimed to reduce the country's poverty levels, showed that 1.7 million people gained literacy between the years 2003 and 2010. According to a study published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Bolivarian anti-poverty missions were successful in cutting poverty by more than half; whereas 54 percent of households lived under the poverty line in the first half of 2003, that number stood at only 26 percent in 2007. However, after more than 15 years of Chávez's regime, followed by his successor Nicolás Maduro and the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), Venezuelan society is deeply polarized into Chavistas, government supporters, and La Oposición, the opposition to the government. There is no question that it is the forging of this profound division within Venezuelan society that is ultimately responsible for the current social crisis. It can be suggested that a primary cause for today's deep social division has been the government's discourse itself. Through his own radicalization, Chávez's discourse heavily appealed to the very social resentment fueled by the collective memory of the 40-year oligarchical rule of the country. Chávez's accusation towards George W. Bush as being "the devil," his public condemnation of the state of Israel, and his vociferous name-calling of opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski as a "majunche burgués" which roughly translates to "loser bourgeois" are only a few examples of how Chávez's discourse further incentivized hatred among Venezuelans of different social classes and contributed to the further political divide of Venezuelan society. Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela's current president and handpicked successor of Chávez, has in many ways, continued to radicalize Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution. Within a year as president, Maduro has been able to acquire the majority of news networks that had historically been information channels for the Venezuelan opposition: Televen, Venevisión, Noticias24, Meridiano among others. Recently, the Maduro administration threatened to revoke the rights America-based news channel CNN after abruptly taking Colombia-based news channel NTN24 off the air. The radicalization of this process has led to an international media blackout of the Venezuelan social crisis and has led to a number of international demonstrations led by Venezuelan citizens living in different countries worldwide in the hopes of informing international institutions about the current social crisis in Venezuela. Restricting access to information effectively disunites citizens. There is much diversity of opinion within the opposition groups and, overall, Venezuela possesses low levels of political culture amongst its population. In Caracas, the majority of demands are political, including calls for Freedom of Expression, the freeing of detainees and the resignation of President Maduro, while in other cities social demands are incorporated with protests against inflation, scarcity and lack of proper public services. Many are simply actively denouncing state repression and call out for aiding victims of alleged human rights violations. Exacerbated by the difficulty of having free discourse online, protests being carried out in many parts of the country and are lacking in focus and direction. Although denied by State-owed Internet operator Compañía Anónima Nacional de Telefonos de Venezuela (CANTV), several websites and applications including Pastebin, a photo-sharing tool, Zello, a walkie-talkie application, and Twitter have been blocked since the most recent nationwide protests ignited on February 12, 2014. Censorship is a long criticized practice of suppression amongst authoritarian regimes and is undeniably fueling angst amongst opposition supporters. "Regulating how and what we communicate weakens our confidence in one another and our government. Freedom of Expression helps us be more informed as citizens and can help us to influence a government that better represents the people of Venezuela. In order to combat corruption, have fewer violations of human rights, and be led by government that reflects the desires of Venezuelans, we must be granted the freedom to view, create, and share news that informs one another without governmental bias. Our people will feel empowered and more capable of helping our country once aware of the concerns and opportunities we face. I believe this is a critical factor in settling the discontent plaguing our beautiful country," says Rodrigo Diamani Vidaurre, Founder and President of Un Mundo Sin Mordaza, a Venezuela-based non-governmental organization. Primarily cultivated online by groups with a massive digital following like Un Mundo Sin Mordaza and SOS Venezuela, demonstrations have been carried out across the globe drawing thousands of participants. Facebook and Twitter have served as a hub for orchestrating numerous demonstrations across the Americas, Europe, and South Africa where talking points, graphics, photos, locations, and other resources continue to be exchanged. Both emphatic supporters of the opposition and those curious about what is transpiring in Venezuela converge on and offline compel greater media coverage which remains limited to reporting news strictly based on claims reported by those able to dispatch information from the front lines of protests and government loyalists. Responsibly presenting facts to back up news reporting is therefore besieged to the restrictions enforced by the Venezuelan government. Under the pretext of creating a more equal society for the underprivileged, not only has the government nationalized key industries, but has also instituted Comisión de Administración de Divisas (CADIVI), a government institution whose purpose is to regulate foreign currency exchange. Despite the fact Venezuelans could once exchange Bolívares for US Dollars at a local bank through a simple transaction, CADIVI has imposed strict regulations in the currency exchange market. As a consequence of this, a large parallel US Dollar black market has formed in which US Dollars sell for over ten times the official exchange rate, a ratio that increases on a daily basis. The combination of nationalization of the private sector and currency exchange market regulation has driven Venezuela into an economic downward spiral that has led to uncontrollable and ever-increasing inflation rates, and dangerous levels of food and goods shortages at local supermarkets. Whereas it is undeniable, seeing from Pérez's impeachment on corruption charges, that corruption was a real problem before Chávez's coming to power in 1999, it has severely increased over the years of socialist administration despite his anti-corruption campaign platform. Most notably, members of the "socialist" administration have been known for acquiring immense fortunes through Venezuela's oil production and the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) whose oil production represents roughly one-third of the country's GDP and makes billions of dollars in profits every year. The self-acclaimed "socialist" regime, which in principle, stands for redistribution of wealth, has been irrefutably inefficient at converting oil profits into tangible social improvement. On the contrary, politicians such as Pedro Carreño, current Minister of Interior, have become infamous for numerous public appearances in which Louis Vuitton clothing and other expensive apparel have become the norm. Upon his death, Hugo Chávez's fortune was estimated at 500 million US dollars. Perhaps the most lamentable consequence of the radicalization of the socialist experiment in Venezuela has been the violence that has become rampant across the country. Whereas socialism has been effective at reducing poverty and improving education, it has not been effective at reducing crime levels. Over the past 15 years, homicide rates in Venezuela rose from 20.6 homicides per 100,000 population in 1995 to 45.1 in 2010, surpassing those of Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Syria, and many other countries formally recognized as "war zones." Most recently, 2014 has seen the active participation of several armed groups that are openly supported by the government. In particular, these include the so-called Colectivos de Paz, "Peace Collectives" and the guerrilla group Tupamaros. Both groups, through government support, have acquired firearms and have been responsible for brutal violent attacks against peaceful demonstrators and have led to the death of several student protestors during the week of February 12. Most recently, Venezuela has experienced the infiltration of Cuban military Special Forces known as Avispas Negras or "Black Wasps" and are widely suspected of having contributed to the many violent attacks under the orders of the Castro regime of Cuba. Images from El Periódico de Monagas It is evident that the problems of inflation, scarcity, crime and violence are issues that affect all Venezuelans equally, regardless of their political affiliation or ideologies. Why, then, is the population still divided? It can be suggested that this is precisely a result of years of political discourse that has enhanced that resentful emotional reaction from the lower classes towards the opposition and its leaders. Simply put, whereas no sector of society can escape from the many consequences of the social crisis, it is virtually impossible for them, practically all of whom were staunch followers of Chávez and his agenda, to relate to opposition leaders Henrique Capriles Radonski, the son of wealthy businessman who to this day owns million-dollar apartments in Manhattan, María Corina Machado daughter of a wealthy steel entrepreneur from the East of Caracas, and Leopoldo López, a Harvard graduate. The path to resolution of the Venezuelan crisis is clear. The Venezuelan population must find a way to reconcile with itself and do away with the polarization that has been promoted by the current regime. A viable solution would be to find a new leader, one that potentially originates from the slums of Petare, San Agustín, or 23 de Enero; who is able to appeal to the many unsatisfied Chavistas who do not trust the current leaders of the opposition. The emergence of such a figure could potentially represent a common ground between Chavistas and the opposition and could very well signal the turning point in Venezuela's political crisis. About the co-authors: Alvaro Salas is a native of Costa Rica and noteworthy scholar. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in foreign affairs, another in law, and a Master of Business Administration with a majors in finance, economics and sustainable development from INCAE Business School. Currently earning a Master of Public Policy and serving as a researcher at Cornell University, he recently concluded his term as the first Latin American President of the Cornell Public Affairs Society. Alvaro has earlier experience as a manager of an insurance company and as an academic consultant and researcher for Interamerican Development Bank, Grameen Creative Lab and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Antonio J. Henríquez García is a native of Caracas, Venezuela and third-year undergraduate student at Cornell University majoring in economics. Antonio has had the opportunity to live, travel, perform community service, and interact in different social environments throughout Latin America. In 2012, Antonio became cofounder and Executive Director of La Visión Latinoamericana, an educational nonprofit and student organization. Antonio has since then led the organization to facilitate the visits of renowned leaders of Latin America to Cornell University including current Argentinian ambassador to the United States, Cecilia Nahón, former mayor of the city of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus, and the president of Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, Estela Barnes de Carlotto. Between 2012 and 2013, Antonio served as Vice President for Finance for the Ivy Council, a conglomerate of student leaders from the eight Ivy League schools.