To the surprise of Westside lawmakers, a private company that charges callers $2 a minute to leave a message for key members of Congress has found its way into the official U.S. government listings in the new Santa Monica phone book.
The new U.S. Congressional Voice Mail Service appears to be a governmental service, but actually it is a private enterprise dreamed up by an engineer in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Already, the listing in the just-released GTE telephone directory has sparked a few complaints to local congressmen.
Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) called it "misleading to the public to have listed in the phone book, under 'U.S. Government Offices,' a service that is for profit and not at all aligned with the federal government."
The voice mail service's listing under the heading of Congress of the United States says there is a $2-per-minute charge to dial the 900 number.
Steve Smith, spokesman for Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles), said the congressman's office has received several complaints. "People said they thought they were being charged to call their government," he said.
The voice mail service, which is listed just after Beilenson and just before Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles), does not have "anything to do with a governmental agency at all," Smith said. "We think it is outrageous and have placed an inquiry to the phone company."
Levine said he regrets that "GTE did not work harder to screen out such misleading entries."
But GTE spokesman Larry Cox said the phone company was "kind of surprised to see it in there. That's a government service listing."
Cox said the governmental pages for the Santa Monica phone book, which also includes Pacific Palisades, Mar Vista, Venice, Marina del Rey and Playa del Rey areas, were prepared by Pacific Bell and published by GTE.
Authorization from a governmental agency is needed to be listed in the government pages. Pacific Bell spokeswoman Kate Flynn said the company is attempting to verify the authorization received to put the 900 number in the government pages. The number is appearing in the congressional listings of the new phone books in Los Angeles and Orange County. "If we are not provided the proper authorization, we will not allow it to be published in future directories," Flynn said.
Dale Comyford, president of U.S. Congressional Voice Mail Service, said in an interview that he asked for the listing in phone books across the nation and that most local phone companies, with the exception of New England Bell, complied.
"We feel like the phone companies and we have the right to place the number where our customers . . . are most able to find the number," he said.
Comyford defended the listing, noting that it tells callers there will be a $2-per-minute charge for using the service. "We want to tell people up front what it costs."
The concept, he explained, is to let the public call and leave a voice message for House and Senate leaders, President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle. He said tapes of the phone calls will be delivered twice a day to the White House and congressional leaders' offices. Fax messages to all members of Congress also will be delivered.
Comyford said there is no guarantee what the congressional offices will do with the cassette tapes, but he said most members of Congress "by and large are very good at responding to mail."
The 43-year-old engineer said he believes members of Congress will be "happy to have communication from their constituents or anyone else who needs or wants to reach them."
With the assistance of long distance carrier AT&T, the congressional voice mail service will be available after April 1 in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Guam. AT&T will receive 50 cents from every $2 call, Comyford said.
"It's really a very low-cost service," he said. "We hope it will make money for us."
Comyford, whose only other foray into the expanding field of 900 telephone information services is a governmental job listing service, said he occasionally feels the urge to call a member of Congress and offer his opinion on issues.
Although a 25-cent stamp is cheaper than his service, he stressed the convenience of making a $2 call to a congressional office at 2 a.m.
Comyford said AT&T wanted him to censor messages to Congress, but he refused. "We can't be in the position of reading or censoring the mail," he said. "It's a free country, and people can use the phone to say whatever they want to their congressman."
He said congressional staffers have told them the voice mail messages "can't be any worse than what we are already getting."