Rival Countersues BellSouth, Claims Misconduct

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Access Integrated Networks, locked in a legal battle with rival telecom carrier BellSouth over alleged marketing misrepresentations, announced a countersuit yesyerday charging BellSouth with telemarketing misconduct similar to that of which it stands accused.


In a statement, Access said it tried and failed to reach an out-of-court settlement with BellSouth, which has charged Access with giving false information to BellSouth customers in telemarketing pitches. BellSouth has continued its legal pursuit of Access despite a judge's refusal last month to grant an injunction that would have halted Access' marketing efforts.


Access has asked the court for compensatory damages for its claim of having lost customers due to BellSouth misstatements. Atlanta-based BellSouth spokesman David Sutton denied the charges and called the countersuit an attempt by Access to divert attention from its own activities.


"We think the counterclaim is completely without merit," Sutton said. "It's more akin to a ruse."


According to Access, BellSouth telemarketing representatives told Access customers that Access was going out of business and that they should switch back to BellSouth or risk losing service. Access said its customers reported these misstatements but it is unsure how many customers actually switched.


In addition, BellSouth told customers that their listings would not appear in the Yellow Pages because they were Access customers, and that to retain their BellSouth dial-up or broadband Internet service they would need to have all local service with BellSouth, according to Access. Access also said BellSouth technicians told its customers they would receive poor maintenance service and claimed that one small business that switched to Access was told that it would lose one of its phone lines if it didn't return to BellSouth.


Access executives accused BellSouth of trying to re-establish its monopoly over the local telephone service market. According to Access, despite government efforts to introduce competition, BellSouth maintains a 90 percent share of the local service market in its region.


"We have become a formidable player to BellSouth," Rodney Page, senior vice president for Access, said in a statement. "They don't like it, and it is their goal to try and disparage us, which only makes us more determined to fight."


Sutton said BellSouth's goal in filing its lawsuit was to stop illegal marketing and not to stifle competition. He noted that Access avoided a restraining order only by admitting to errors in its marketing practices and halting them.


"Competitors are not a problem," Sutton said. "Competitors who break the law are a problem."


Access' allegations echo many of those made by BellSouth in an Aug. 5 court complaint against Access. BellSouth accused Access telemarketers of telling customers that Access was affiliated with BellSouth, claiming to be BellSouth's authorized billing agents, telling customers that their bills would change but their service would stay with BellSouth and giving false information about regulatory decisions and the supposed break-up of BellSouth.


According to Sutton, BellSouth filed sworn affidavits from 20 of its customers providing evidence of misconduct by Access telemarketers with its original lawsuit. Access' countersuit, in contrast, bears no affidavits, Sutton said.


"It begs the question," Sutton said. "They make a lot of pronouncements, but where's the proof?"


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