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Disgruntled customers of Telecom criticise Telstra for not settling their claims satisfactorily

MONICA ATTARD: Queensland National Party Senator, Ron Boswell, wants an independent inquiry into Telstra and its handling of claims by a group of disgruntled customers known as COT, Casualties of Telecom. Telecom's promise of a speedy settlement of the complaints of bad service was the only reason the Senate didn't hold its own inquiry.

Well, the complaints grew into a saga of unauthorised bugging by Telecom and separate inquiries by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the Telecommunications Ombudsman, Coopers & Lybrand, Austel and then the Federal Police all of which damned Telecom, as it was then, for not dealing fairly with the issue.

Ann Garms is one of the victims and she's speaking here to Catherine Job.

CATHERINE JOB: Mrs Garms, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman this afternoon put out a release saying the arbitration system had not failed, that the process is on track, and since he's overseen the independent arbitrator in this affair, whey shouldn't we believe him?

ANN GARMS: Well, I think Mr Pinnock has only been on the job, now, for several months. We had Warwick Smith as the TIO prior to that and I think John Pinnock's suffering from the same disability as those who come to this process new. I'm not saying he's not acting in good faith but he's under a disability. And what Mr Pinnock is not saying is that some weeks ago he admitted the process had failed. Mr Pinnock admitted to my professional people that the process had erred along the way, that it had failed; and where it has failed, it has failed in time. The process ....

CATHERINE JOB: What do you mean by that?

ANN GARMS: Well, when we signed the fast-track settlement proposal in November 1993, it was to take four months to settle us. We were provided with that assurance in writing. That did not occur. We were then forced into an arbitration process. We were told that it would be non-legalistic, that it would enable us to obtain documents under the process, and that it would be fast track. None of those things have happened. We are now 21 months down the track.

None of us had any money when we went into the process. That was known by Telstra, known by all of those involved that the reason Robin Davey organised this fast-track process was for a fair and equitable assessment and that has not occurred.

At the time Robin Davey called the COT members to Melbourne to do a deal with us. He said, 'If we do this process and we settle you quickly, and we organise a fast-track, FOI fast-track, the process fast-track, will you ask Senator Boswell and Senator Olsen to forgo the Senate inquiry?' We did that. We asked the Senators and they agreed. But Telstra has not kept its side of its bargain.

CATHERINE JOB: You did end up employing lawyers and it costing you more money, I understand?

ANN GARMS: Well, professional people, particularly accountants. I mean, the whole process has got out of control.

CATHERINE JOB: How much has it cost you, in all?

ANN GARMS: Well, it's cost me almost $300,000. I mean, that's right back from the beginning when I first started to employ professional people. But the interesting thing is that I've learnt is that Telstra's solicitors, in March 1994, vetted my Telecom files for sensitive or contentious material before they released it to me.

CATHERINE JOB: They took those out of your file, did they, instead of releasing it to you?

ANN GARMS: Yes. That's right. That is contrary to the FOI Act. And instead of processing the FOI within 30 days, they took up to 500 days to process our FOI. In the case of the Tivoli, all of the testing from August '89 until July 1993 has disappeared.

CATHERINE JOB: But Mr Pinnock says, in his release today, that your settlement is slated for just two months time in November and that the independent arbitrator thinks this should be achieved. Now, why can't you wait until then since you've waited so long already?

ANN GARMS: Because, Cathy, I'm not happy with the process. Now, at the moment I'm under a very, very strict confidentiality agreement with Telstra. I am going to call upon, tomorrow, upon Minister Lee and Senator Bob Collins. I must say Senator Bob Collins has been very, very good in the past when he was Minister for Communications. He was excellent. I am going to call upon them to cancel the confidentiality agreements and let us people reveal the very, very detrimental information that we have. It is just ....

CATHERINE JOB: It is not just a question Mrs Garms, is it, of your holding out for a more than reasonable amount in settlement ....

ANN GARMS: No, no, it is not.

CATHERINE JOB: ... and being intransigent about it?

ANN GARMS: In fact, it is exactly the opposite may I say. I am not happy with the process. I don't think it is a process that will bring us justice. If we'd have known what we know now when we signed the document, we would have never signed. Our professional advisers also are very, very strong on that point. The rules are too narrow. The rules don't allow the arbitrator to address Telecom's conduct. The whole matter is out of control. Telecom's conduct has not improved. It has worsened.

CATHERINE JOB: Ann Garms, thanks for your time.

MONICA ATTARD: That was Ann Garms, one of the so-called Casualties Of Telecom.