By JACK WEATHERLY
Cellular South and Bell South await a decision from the Mississippi Supreme Court on whether a contract with the state of Mississippi landline and Internet services, now held by Bell South, that was sealed in 2006 should be a public record.
The court held an oral hearing on Sept. 21 that turned on whether the decision by Hinds County Chancery Judge William Singletary to seal the contract was overridden by a law passed by the Legislature in 2015 and therefore subject to the states Open Records Act.
At stake is a matter of whether competition for those services, now solely offered by Bell South, should be allowed, according to Sheldon Alston, attorney for Cellular South, which does business as C Spire.
One anonymous state government source quoted in a Clarion-Ledger article put the contract at $30 million a year.
“I don’t know that for a fact, but it’s a large contract,” Alston said in an interview last week.
“The Legislature made it clear that this contract should be open to the public,” Alston said.
In arguing before the Supreme Court, Adam Charnes, attorney for Bell South/AT&T, said that the law passed in 2015 does not address the issue of contracts and therefore is not subject to the state Open Records Act.
Singletary found that the contract contained trade secrets, which are not subject to the Open Records Act.
Alston said in the interview that the legislation was passed in the wake of the scandal that engulfed the Department of Corrections. Former Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps has pleaded guilty to some of the numerous charges against him for accepting bribes and kickbacks for contracts.
A half-dozen people have pleaded guilty to bribery.
“There is no doubt that knowing what the contract was prior to the bidding process would make it a more open process for all competitors of AT&T, and better for the ultimate consumer,” Alston said.
“For one party in the bidding process to have knowledge of what the contract was, the scope of it and the price would be inappropriate.”
The contract with the state also allows four-year schools and local government to pay for telecom services through the state contract.
Singletary refused to revoke his order after a September 2015 hearing and C Spire appealed.
Marty Richter of AT&T Corporate Communications said in an email that “our only comment is that we believe that the [Chancery Court] correctly decided this issue, and await the decision of the Supreme Court.”
C Spire itself had to rebid for wireless services with the state when its contract, which was not sealed, with the state expired in the fourth quarter of 2015. Now its shares those services with AT&T, Alston noted.
Alston said he believes, but does not know with certainty, the landline and Internet contract should expire at the end of fiscal 2017, on June 30, 2018.
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