At least a dozen employees of Southern California Edison Co. manipulated customer satisfaction surveys by tricking a polling firm into calling people who would give glowing reviews -- namely, the employees themselves.
Edison, which disclosed the scam Monday, said the surveys helped persuade state regulators to grant the utility $28 million in special service awards between 1997 and 2000. Edison said it was looking into whether the employees were aiming to inflate their own bonuses.
The utility, which was tipped off by an insider, said it hadn't finished investigating the matter but pledged to return to customers any rewards it didn't earn.
"Is Southern California Edison's service so bad that employees are cooking the books in order to make things look better than they really are?" said Douglas Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica. "This is an eye-opener."
Edison said the employees, who worked in the transmission and distribution unit, doctored computerized data that was sent to a firm hired to survey supposedly random customers about their experiences with utility staff, said Gil Alexander, a spokesman for Southern California Edison, the region's largest power company and a subsidiary of Rosemead-based Edison International.
Edison didn't identify the employees, who were suspended Monday pending the results of the investigation.
Details of the deception were still unfolding Monday. Early in the day, Edison said the employees deleted customers' phone numbers and substituted the numbers of family members and friends who would presumably offer high praise for the utility workers when the survey firm called. Later, Edison said the employees, after encounters with unhappy customers, would enter invalid phone numbers so those customers could never be reached. Alternatively, the employees would enter their own home or cellphone numbers and, when called by the survey firm, would provide flattering testimonials.
"It would appear that they did it in order to ensure that they would be measured as high performers and their department would meet its year-end goals and get the maximum payout," Alexander said.
The employees implicated so far are staff-level workers, though the company hasn't ruled out the possibility that a manager orchestrated the effort, Alexander said.
In a letter delivered to PUC President Michael Peevey on Monday, Edison Chairman John Bryson called the episode a "serious lapse" by certain employees. Bryson said the extent of the ruse wasn't known but added that "it is now clear that the credibility of the process underlying the customer satisfaction rewards we have received and requested is in question."
Bryson said Edison had asked the PUC to suspend proceedings involving $10 million in customer service awards covering 2001 and 2002. The chairman said it would amend its data for those years as well as reassess the $10 million it had planned to seek for its 2003 performance.
Under a PUC incentive plan that ended in mid-2003, Edison could earn rewards or be assessed penalties based on its performance for system reliability, employee safety and customer satisfaction. The rewards didn't affect customers' rates, which were frozen at the time, but could have eventually.
A separate company incentive program allows employees to earn bonuses of varying size, depending on their performance, the performance of their departments and company-wide results, Alexander said.
Consumer advocates said the customer-survey scheme raised doubts not only about the utility's service quality but about the accuracy of all kinds of data that Edison routinely submits to the PUC, including safety performance results to repair response times.
"Their data across the board may be suspect," said Heller of the taxpayer foundation.
Regina Birdsell, director of the Office of Ratepayer Advocates, an independent consumer watchdog within the PUC, expressed frustration.
"We have to rely on the utilities to tell us how they're doing based on customer surveys. And this begs the question about why those 12 employees felt compelled to falsify that data," Birdsell said.
Edison said it launched its internal investigation into the scam several months ago after receiving an anonymous letter from an employee. A second anonymous letter came later; it is unclear whether the letters were from the same person. Edison notified the PUC of its initial findings a week ago.
The employees involved worked in a group of 280 people that helps design and plan for new construction and maintenance projects needed to extend electricity to new housing and commercial projects, among other duties. Its customers would include developers, builders and residential customers undertaking expansion projects.
"It's extremely disappointing," Alexander said. "This strikes right at the heart of our business."