Friday, February 25, 2005

Bill Oliver Proclaims Himself the Only Trustworthy Citizen in Louisiana

BellSouth Louisiana boss Bill Oliver, fresh from delivering an economic blackmail threat to Lafayette via the editorial board of the Baton Rouge Advocate, had his folks out scurrying Friday afternoon trying to cover his tracks.

Lafayette Mayor-President Joey Durel called a 3 p.m. press conference at the Lafayette Economic Development Authority offices on Friday afternoon. BellSouth regional rep John Williams was there early with copies of a letter from to The Advocate's Executive Editor Linda Lightfoot. The letter was distributed prior to the start of the press conference, which drew a significant contingent of the area's media.

In his letter, Oliver essentially calls reporter Kevin Blanchard a liar, as well as any and everyone one at The Advocate who sat in on the editorial board meeting with him and allowed Blanchard's story to run.

After three paragraphs of hemming and hawing about his intent during his two-hour meeting with The Advocate editorial board, Oliver goes into full denial mode:

In closing, let me make it perfectly clear — I did not threaten a pullout or a closure of any BellSouth or Cingular center in Louisiana. I am deeply concerned that interpretations of my comments have caused any distress for our employees or our customers. BellSouth values all of our employees and customers, and we want to continue to provide outstanding service to the citizens of Lafayette. We have done so for more than 100 years, and we expect to do so for many years to come.
Let's see, in the story, there are the following relevant paragraphs:
Oliver said a successful LUS venture could create a monopoly in the parish

Why would BellSouth want to keep all its operations in a parish where it had no other significant business interest, Oliver asked rhetorically.
The call center, which handles customer service tasks for Cingular, could be located in "Timbuktu" and still perform the same services, Oliver said.

"Would you still keep people there?" Oliver said.
Imagine, interpreting that as a threat! That's just standard Fortune 500 lingo for the facts: "Do it our way or we hit the highway."

No threat. Just fact.

When Kevin Blanchard read Oliver's letter, I happened to be sitting behind him. He turned to Claire Taylor from The Advertiser and said with some incredulity, "He's saying he didn't say what I reported he said!"

In the press conference, Durel said that he was forced to choose between the credibility of Bill Oliver and The Advocate. He said he had to go with The Advocate on this one, based on the record of BellSouth's behavior in response to the LUS fiber plan.

Durel said he believed The Advocate article because the city has been under attack by BellSouth since the fiber plan was first announced. Durel said that BellSouth had first gone to the Legislature to try to kill the effort. Failing there, they proceeded with their partners Cox (and their posse of Sock Puppets) to wage a disinformation campaign against the effort. Failing that, BellSouth, Cox went to court where they won a measure of victory by forcing Consolidated Government to pursue another route towards bond sales.

"This threat is nothing but economic blackmail against the people of Lafayette," Durel declared.

"It is now clear that BellSouth will stop at nothing to try to intimidate the citizens of our community," LUS director Terry Huval said.

The most interesting part of the press conference was LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux's description of the approximately $18 million in concessions local and state governments gave Cingular to get that call center here. They include about $10 million in workforce training money under the incumbent Quality Jobs Program, a public ownership bond (without a public vote!) of $1 million for construction of the building, 14 acres of land and, get this, discounted utility rates from LUS!

Gothreaux said these are part of a 10-year contract signed by Cingular with LEDA and the State of Louisiana in 2001. That contract binds Cingular to provide at least 750 jobs at the call center (which is located in LEDA's industrial park off Pointe de Mouton Road) for the duration of the contract. There are currently 1,300 jobs at the call center.

So, BellSouth's backtrackin' Bill Oliver has opened up a new front in his war against the LUS plan. Not content to competing with an inferior network against Cox and other cable providers in the metro markets of the state, Oliver has now provoked a war against the best newspaper in the state.

To believe Oliver, you have to believe everyone else he's taken on is lying.


GumboFilé said...

I'm curious. I've read and re-read the original story several times and the only actual quote from Oliver on this topic says, "Would you still keep people there?". The story offers no context or more compelling quote. I'd like to see a transcript of this part of this conversation. Was he making a threat? or was he merely responding rhetorically to a hypothetical question? We really can't tell much from this quote with no context.

I honestly find it quite difficult to believe that a man in his position would make such a provocative threat to a room full of journalists.

I can't fault the sentiment reflected in this story. Others have made similar points, and it is indeed something for proponents to think about, but we don't have the power to influence such decisions, nor do we represent those who do.

If he did indeed make the threat he is accuse of making, rather than making denials and excuses, he should confess it and express regret. He and I may have different motives, but we're on the same side and this certainly doesn't help our side.

All that being said, I'd still like to see a transcript.

Mike Stagg said...

St. Bill's threat might be easier to dismiss if he and BellSouth didn't have such a track record of similar behavior.

To wit: BellSouth quit the Lafayette Chamber of Commerce after that body endorsed LUS's fiber loop project.

In New Iberia, BellSouth cut off its annual 'gift' to the Iberia Industrial Development Foundation after that body refused to stop promoting telecommunications competition in its "B2B on the Bayou" conferences.

And, as has been noted elsewhere, Oliver has been tossing this 'Cingular is gone' hint about very liberally since the the first mention of the LUS fiber project.

The track record indicates that this was no accident; it indicates that this was no misinterpretation; and it indicates that this is no idle threat.

GumboFilé said...

I can't defend it if he really said it, but neither can I blame him. To allow LUS to compete against BellSouth is unjust because LUS has an unfair advantage. LUS has the power to make it impossible for BellSouth to profitably compete. BellSouth has no such power. I can't blame them for removing themselves from environments that have become hostile to them.

John said...

What Bill Oliver is doing is what the incumbents have been doing in public and in private since the first day: stirring up a little Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. (FUD -- look it up on the site side of this site under "on Background.")

Oliver and BS is the one of the incumbents best able to go out and smooze "influentials" (how do you think Oliver managed to get an audience with the Advocate board mere days after the Advertiser shocker). They say out loud in small groups what the hint at in larger groups and lie about in public. That has been very consistent and even their allies should recognize its. The Advocate is reporting the real story--not the one that BS would like us to hear--and that is all that is new about the story. (Did we even know that BS had had a private audience to try and convience the Advertiser board before this broke and the Advertiser hinted that they'd heard the same sort of insinuations then? No. We didn't.)

The truth is that BellSouth could compete very profitly in Lafayette. The truth is that it does not want to becauuse it could compete more profitably elsewhere. Verizon knows this and is providing what LUS wants across the country. Cameron telephone has fiber to fishing camps on gulf locally. Kaplan telephone is quitely doing the same. EATEL, also in Louisiana, is days from selling its fiber-based service to the public.

It can be done. And businesses that actually care about or have a real tie to their communities are doing it now.

The problem is that this characterization does not apply to your ally BellSouth. (AKA BS)

GumboFilé said...

If you are correct about this then I must confess that BS is using a tactic that is more likely to back-fire than pay off. The fact that the LUS fiber plan could motivate BS and others to re-evaluate their operations in this area should be part of this debate, but it should not come from them in the form of a threat.

GumboFilé said...

I've learned more about this and thought more about this and have concluded that it would be impossible for Oliver to have made sucha a threat. BS is a minority partner in Cingular. Oliver doesn't speak for Cingular.

John said...


You probably learned that BS is a minority partner in Cingular right here. I posted that with the initial response.

However just because Oliver (who is only Louisiana's BellSouth president after all) doesn't have the authority to pull Cingular out of Lafayette --and as it turns out BellSouth can't legally do so doesn't mean he didn'ty make the threat. Frankly it is usually people who can't back up their threats that tend to make them. It's all they've got left. Threats are generally a pretty weak sister tactic.


Oliver admits he talked about Cingular (and regularly, if deceptively, pretends that Cingular employees are BellSouth employess in counting Lafayette "employees")even though, as you say, he doesn't own and doesn't control Cingular and their business isn't directly threatened at all.

He doesn't deny that he thinks that LUS could beat BellSouth in Lafayette (a pretty surprising admission). And that he said why would they want to stay around if they lost the landline business. And that they could move the service offered by Cingular to Timbuktu (even though he certainly knew of the companies obligation and the amount of subsidy Cingular had gotten for that promise.)Then after outlining that reasoning he asks: "Would you still keep people there?"

He hasn't denied any of that.

It was a threat. Just one he hoped wouldn't be made public.

GumboFilé said...

For an empty threat you guys sure tried to get a lot of mileage (and smoke) out of it.