A company that signs up people for federally-subsidized cell phones is fighting allegations that it enrolled ineligible customers.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission’s Public Utility Division is seeking an injunction to block True Wireless LLC from signing up new customers through the federal Lifeline Program.
The Journal Record’s Sarah Terry-Cobo writes Lifeline is a federal program that dates back to the Reagan Administration that provides subsidies to low income people who purchase phones.
People who receive food stamps, federal housing assistance or general assistance from Bureau of Indian Affairs programs are among those who are eligible. Prospective customers must demonstrate eligibility by showing documentation from one of several authorities. Oklahoma’s tribal designations mean Lifeline companies can get an additional subsidy per customer per month, with much of the state falling under that guideline, aside from the Panhandle, Oklahoma City metro and a corner of southwest Oklahoma.
An administrative judge heard arguments on Monday. An attorney for True Wireless called the allegations “outrageous” and said the injunction violates the company’s commercial free speech rights.
In addition to allegations of ineligible enrollment, the Corporation Commission alleges True Wireless agents signed up customers from locations that had not been reported to regulators.
Jacob McCleland: You're listening to the Business Intelligence Report, a weekly conversation about business news in Oklahoma. I'm Jacob McCleland. I'm talking with Russell Ray. He's the editor of The Journal Record newspaper. Russell, thank you so much for talking with us.
Russell Ray: It's good to be here. Thanks for having me.
McCleland: And welcome to your new role as the as the new editor of The Journal Record. Well let's talk first about True Wireless. This company provides free or discounted cell phones to low income consumers through a federally funded program called Lifeline. Now I spoke with Sarah Terry-Cobo about this last month and she writes that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission's Public Utility Division is seeking an injunction to stop true wireless from enrolling new customers. Russell, what does the Corporation Commission allege that True Wireless is doing?
Ray: Well the Corporation Commission claims the company True Wireless is signing up ineligible customers for a subsidized program known as Lifeline. So Lifeline is a federal program for low income people who qualify for subsidized cell phone service. And these are people who receive food stamps, housing assistance or general assistance from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. So the commission staff discovered several cases of fraudulent enrollment in August during an audit that was part of this ongoing enforcement case that was filed earlier this summer. Also True Wireless agents were signing up customers from locations that had not been reported to the commission. And so the commission staff claims the company was also falsifying documents such as Social Security statements and proof of address. So those are pretty much the central issues surrounding this case.
McCleland: Now an administrative law judge heard arguments on Monday about all of this. What did True Wireless' attorney say about these allegations?
Ray: The company told the judge the commission's request for an injunction violates their rights to commercial speech and an attorney for a True Wireless said some third party contractors may have violated some of those rules. But he did emphasize that none of those contractors or True Wireless agents defrauded the state or the federal government. The attorney testified it was a quote unquote "outrageous" to suggest the company was purposefully trying to defraud the government.
McCleland: Now that administrative judge denied the injunction request. What happens next in this case?
Ray: Well what happens next is a hearing on this case continues this this week and a more comprehensive ruling will follow. After the administrative law judge makes his recommendation, then it will be referred onto the commissioners who must vote by majority for a final ruling.
McCleland: Well let's go now from talking about wireless phones to Christmas trees. Amazon announced that it plans to escalate its sale of real Christmas trees, wreaths and garlands this holiday season. What's been the reaction from local Christmas tree growers.
Ray: Well you know the local tree farmers around here don't seem to be that concerned about the competition from Amazon.
McCleland: Now if I go to a local tree farmer, I can harvest a tree and get it home and in water pretty quickly. How long would it take Amazon to deliver a harvested tree?
Ray: Right. So Amazon said those trees will be shipped and received by customers within ten days of making their order. But but one tree farmer told us there are drawbacks to ordering trees online. One, a very important one, is that fresh Christmas trees need to be placed in water within an hour or it will dry out within within days.
McCleland: What are some of the strategies that local producers have to remain competitive in the Christmas tree market?
Ray: Well one is looking at the sustainability aspect of Christmas decorations and is selling live trees in buckets that can be replanted after the holidays. And so that has been very successful, the retailer tells us.
McCleland: Russell Ray is the editor of The Journal Record newspaper. Russell thank you so much for your time.
Ray: Hey thank you.
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