TORONTO – Hydro One treated customers “abominably” after a new computer system resulted in huge billing errors for about 100,000 homes, Ontario’s ombudsman reported Monday.
In his investigation of the Hydro One billing practices, Andre Marin also accused the Crown corporation of lying to the government and his office about the extent of the problem.
The ombudsman’s office was flooded with 10,700 complaints from Hydro One ratepayers about overbilling and “outrageously bad customer service” as the utility scrambled to fix technical glitches with the new system, added Marin.
“Customers felt mistreated and abused when they tried to report these problems to Hydro One,” he said. “Customers who had huge sums of money pulled from their bank accounts without warning, or who were hit with outrageous bills, were treated abominably.”
As complaints grew, Hydro One deceived the electricity regulator and the ombudsman’s office “about the extent and nature of its billing and customer service disaster,” Marin said in a special report.
“One of the issues that really concerns me is how they obstructed and lied to the minister of energy’s office, the board of directors and the Ontario Energy Board,” he said.
Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli was “disappointed” with the report’s findings, and said he had been getting different stories about billing problems from Hydro One officials.
“As this issue was evolving, the seriousness of it kept changing,” said Chiarelli.
Misleading the ombudsman could result in fines or even a jail term, but Marin rejected the idea of pursuing charges against anyone at Hydro One.
“We’d have to build a new courthouse because there are a lot of people that you’d have to charge,” he said. “Today I’m simply reminding Hydro One not to do it again.”
Hydro One lost sight of its duty to the public when it introduced the $180 million customer service system, and had to spend another $88 million to fix its problems, said Marin.
“Hydro One reacted in the worst way possible, with deflection and deception,” he said. “It minimized the issue, misled its overseers, relied on public relations spin and put its customers last.”
Hydro One CEO Carmine Marcello insisted his officials never lied to anyone about the extent of the billing problems.
“We focused on fixing technical issues, but we failed to appreciate how those issues would impact our customers,” said Marcello. “We let them down. We didn’t treat them well, and we’re sorry that we put them through a difficult experience.”
Marin warned his office and Ontario’s auditor general will lose oversight of Hydro One once the Liberal government’s budget bill passes, approving the privatization of up to 60 per cent of the electrical utility. An internal ombudsman at Hydro One would never have released such a critical report on thousands of customer complaints, he said.
“These corporate, internal ombudsmen are sometimes referred to, by themselves, as ombuddies,” he said, noting that they would lack the tools, the independence or the impartiality to take their organizations to task.
The Progressive Conservatives want the government to maintain majority ownership of Hydro One while the New Democrats oppose the sale completely, but both are worried about the lack of public oversight once the utility is sold to private investors.
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