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American Legion Acts on AT&T/Iraq Issue

Edition: February 15, 2006 Edition
Gene Retske
The overcharging of American soldiers for calls from Iraq and Afghanistan, as first reported in The Prepaid Press in January 2005, has caught the eye of a powerful organization. The American Legion has begun hearing horror stories about the AT&T calling monopoly from returning U.S. military personnel, and is getting ready to act. A resolution is now working its way up the chain of command, to be acted upon by the national convention in June of this year. If successful, it could garner sufficient interest at higher levels of government, and result in positive action being taken.

It all started for the Legion when a friend of Jeanne Gilbert, the Co-Chairman of Public Relations for the American Legion Department of New York state, asked Jeanne if he was still involved with the American Legion, and if he could do anything about the high cost of calls from Iraq. Gilbert's friend had just returned from his second deployment in Iraq, and with a pregnant wife at home, found it necessary to stay in close touch. In her latter stages of pregnancy, Gilbert's friend told him that he was spending up to $240 a month for calls back home to his wife.

Gilbert, whose day job is a corrections officer at the maximum security Clinton Correctional Institution in upstate New York, promised to look into the matter.

"I was just as dumb and naïve as everyone else," said Gilbert. "I was always under the impression through either news media, or television, that [calling cards] were a perfect item to send over there."

Gilbert began investigating the matter. Googling "AT&T rips off troops in Iraq," he found hundreds of blogs, and a New Jersey Star Ledger newspaper article, dated March 6, 2005. The blogs were mostly disgruntled soldiers, complaining about the high cost of calls, and lack of alternatives.

The Star Ledger article detailed the experience of Ledger embed reporter Wayne Wolley using a card recommended by AT&T. The card was sold in "units", and did not spell out the actual cost, a practice that is frowned on in the U.S. Wolley was able to make 66 minutes worth of calls on a 200 unit card, or 21¢ a minute using the AT&T card. The AT&T provided payphones in Iraq and Afghanistan block all other toll free calls, a practice which is banned in the U.S., and of questionable legality on U.S. bases overseas.

What raised Gilbert's eyebrows was the estimate quoted in the Star Ledger from The Prepaid Press article that AT&T may be realizing up to $46 million a year, at the expense of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. With this in mind, Gilbert began reading the blogs and websites.

"I found many, many websites and blogs that discuss the problem with the AT&T calling card program," said Gilbert. "I felt that it was a real problem that our troops were being charged that much money, that AT&T was the only calling card that could be used, and that the public was not aware of that."

Gilbert then asked other Legion members if they had heard any similar feedback. He started receiving emails and letters, not only from returning soldiers, but from those still deployed. He was sent photographs of call centers, showing soldiers standing line to make the expensive calls. At this point, Gilbert decided, with the concurrence of local Legion commanders, to investigate further. In addition to contacting this editor, he talked to AT&T public relations people, who were not very helpful.

Gilbert said he received a call from Roberto Cruz, the Vice President of public relations of AT&T. Gilbert said Cruz focused on how many calling cards AT&T had donated, their set up costs, and the personnel costs of administering the program. Cruz said AT&T was proud of the service and the free services that AT&T had provided the troops, according to Gilbert. Gilbert said he informed Cruz that he was investigating the situation, on behalf of the American Legion.

Gilbert has also looked for the contract that AT&T claims it has to provide the services, but has been unable to find out anything about it. The Prepaid Press had also attempted to get information on the alleged contract when we were conducting our investigation last year. No one at AT&T, AAFES (Army and Air Force Exchange Service) or the Department of Defense has ever been able to provide the contract, or a single detail about it, other than to assert that one exists. An attorney, working with The Prepaid Press last year, was unable to successfully file a formal document request because of the lack of specific details. Gilbert even contacted the FCC, but they were not able to offer any assistance in locating the contract.

Gilbert next took the issue to New York elected representatives, including Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, various members of the U.S. House of Representatives and New York State Assemblymen. Last year, The Prepaid Press had contacted Florida officials, including U.S. Senators Mel Martinez and Bill Nelson and U.S. Representative David Weldon. Weldon and Nelson's offices did investigations and got responses, but no action was ever taken. Sen. Martinez' office never responded to or acknowledged the inquiry.

What is likely to happen as a result of the American Legion action, assuming the resolution is approved?

"With the resolution put in place and passed, the American Legion will vigorously go through the legislative process," said Gilbert. "I feel it is the American Legion's responsibility, at the very least, to inform the citizens of the United States of exactly what is going on when they are going to the stores to purchase these products, even knowing that AT&T is the only game in town right now, and what they are buying.
If we can accomplish these two things, then we have made a giant step forward."

Click here to read Gene's Blog on AT&T/Iraq

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