Bamberg County has filed a lawsuit against the AT&T Corp., claiming the company billed the county for service lines that had long been disconnected.
The 10-page lawsuit, which was filed in the Court of Common Pleas Dec. 29, 2020, claims the county requested AT&T make changes to its telephone lines when the county upgraded its emergency response system in June 2015.
The changes included disconnecting 11 phone lines operated and maintained by the phone company, with the understanding that AT&T would no longer charge the county for the disconnected lines.
The lawsuit claims AT&T agreed to disconnect and terminate services to the lines with the understanding the county would no longer be billed for those disconnected lines.
The county alleges the phone company breached its contract with the county and billed the county $211,741 for those lines. The total billed amount was through March 20, 2020, according to the lawsuit.
The county alleges the billed amount was included in bills that included amounts the county owed for numerous service lines it has with the phone company.
The lawsuit claims the county was unaware that it was being billed for the disconnected lines.
As a result, the county claims it paid the $211.741.
"Because there is pending litigation surrounding this matter, I cannot comment in detail," County Administrator Joey Preston said when asked why it took the county so long -- about five years -- to notice the charges. "The charges were discovered after a collective effort by administration and an outside consultant engaged to perform audit-related services of utility charges incurred by the county."
"Efforts were taken by the county to resolve the matter with AT&T prior to litigation; however, AT&T never responded," Preston said.
AT&T Lead Public Relations Manager of Corporate Communications Mark Giga said, "We recently received the complaint and we are reviewing our options."
The county has hired Greenville-based Holder, Padgett, Littlejohn and Prickett, LLC to represent it in the lawsuit.
Preston said Partners Stokely Holder and Lee Prickett have been doing specialty contract legal work for Bamberg since 2013.
"The work they’ve done in the past for the county has included negotiating and renegotiating a variety of contracts, including without limitation, lease agreements with AT&T," Preston said. "They have also offered advice to the county regarding complex construction and real property matters, and they have successfully represented the county in litigated matters."
Preston acknowledged that his wife is an office manager with the law firm, but says he has been informed and believes that is not a conflict of interest.
"At no time has her compensation been based in any way on what connections she may have to clients or what revenue may be generated by the firm for any client she knows," Preston said. "I understand Bamberg County is just one of hundreds of firm clients."
"She has not and will not receive any financial benefit from the firm's work for Bamberg County; my relationship with the law firm long predated our marriage and I have already reported the item to the Ethics Commission only out of an abundance of caution," Preston said.
Several attempts to reach Bamberg County Council Chairman Larry Haynes for comment on the county's selection of the law firm were unsuccessful.
As it stands, the county is suing the phone company for breach of contract claiming AT&T was supposed to end services on the disconnected lines and not charge the county for those disconnected service lines.
The county is also suing AT&T for fraud and constructive fraud noting the company knew or should have known of the "false representations, statements, and billing invoices" provided to the county regarding the lines.
"Bamberg County was unaware of the fraudulent nature of AT&T’s misrepresentations and did in fact rely upon AT&T’s misrepresentations," the lawsuit claims. "Bamberg County paid AT&T on the disconnected lines, even though AT&T did not provide services on those lines, and AT&T knowingly accepted payment on disconnected lines despite not providing services on those lines."
The lawsuit also claims the phone company violated the S.C. Unfair Trade Practices Act, saying the company's actions "affect the public interest" because the company is "capable of repetition in deceiving and defrauding other members of the public."
The lawsuit also claims the phone company violated the Truth in Billing Act and engaged in quantum merit/unjust enrichment by accepting the county's payment.
"Given the circumstances, it is unjust and inequitable for AT&T to retain these benefits conferred upon it by Plaintiff," the lawsuit states, requesting restitution for the monies paid.
The seventh cause of action in the lawsuit alleges the company was negligent for:
- Failing to accurately bill the plaintiff for services rendered.
- Representing to the county that it would terminate certain services with the understanding that phone company would no longer bill the county.
- Billing the county for services services that it did not provide.
- Accepting payment from the the county for services not provided.
In addition to the monies billed, the county is also suing for other damages such as attorney fees and costs associated with the trial.
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