Central Maine Power Co. will face a second lawsuit concerning its dealings with customers who complained about high electric bills last winter, this one alleging the company trained its service representatives to tell customers they were at fault for the higher charges.

The three law firms, which sued CMP last month accusing it of overcharging customers, said Tuesday they plan to file the second suit alleging fraud on Wednesday.

The law firms say CMP intentionally misled customers who complained about their electric bills rather than acknowledge that its metering and billing systems failed in the aftermath of a wind and rain storm last October that left hundreds of thousands of customers without power, many for more than a week.

Problems with CMP’s systems hampered recovery efforts, and hundreds of angry customers complained of high bills and poor customer service in the wake of the storm.

A spokeswoman for CMP vehemently disputed the latest claims Tuesday evening, and called the timing of the new lawsuit puzzling given that an independent state audit examining the accuracy of CMP’s metering system, billing practices and customer communications won’t be completed until at least October.

Gail Rice said the company’s service representatives take pride in helping customers “troubleshoot” unexpected or unusual electricity usage.

“Our customer service representatives are trained to talk to the customers about energy usage and to troubleshoot problems. There are many different factors that can affect energy usage,” Rice said. “To have their efforts maligned as fraud is a gross misrepresentation of what our customer service representatives are trying to do.”

The law firms don’t agree.

“All of this was done to hide the real story, that CMP’s software program and meters were defective,” the firms’ statement said.

Tuesday’s statement was issued by Lipman & Katz of Augusta, Trafton Matzen of Auburn and Napoli & Shkolnik of New York. The law firms are seeking class-action status for both of their lawsuits.

The second complaint will be filed Wednesday afternoon in Cumberland County Superior Court, Sumner H. Lipman, the Augusta attorney serving as the firms’ spokesman, said in a phone interview Tuesday night.

Complainants in class-action civil suits are not allowed to specify the amount of damages they are seeking, but Lipman offered a rough estimate of between $100 million and $300 million. More than 95,000 customers believe they were overcharged.

“All we are trying to do is recover for the customers the amount of money they overpaid,” Lipman said.

The attorneys filing the suit allege that service representatives offered a number of reasons for customers’ unexpectedly high bills, including bad home wiring, old appliances, a malfunctioning heat or well pump, the cold snap causing the furnace to run more often, and that “your kids must be playing too many video games.”

CMP’s software program served disconnect notices to customers who refused to pay their bills.

“People were caused to readjust their priorities so as to not lose their heat during the winter so some went without food and medications,” the statement reads.

Rice took issue with that claim, saying that not one residence had electrical service disconnected.

She said CMP works to set up payment plans with customers who can’t afford their bills, and that customers are refunded for any overcharges.

Rice said the Public Utilities Commission regulates CMP’s billing system to ensure customers are treated fairly.

On July 19, the law firms filed a complaint against CMP on behalf of Mark Levesque of Scarborough, alleging one count of “unjust enrichment.”

“The basis of that count was that Central Maine Power Company had received monies as a result of improper billings,” the news release said.

After the July 19 filing, Lipman said his office was flooded with requests from CMP customers seeking relief from what they thought were excessive bills. He said his office received 3,000 to 5,000 phone calls or emails seeking legal help.

Lipman said the fraud charge was not incorporated into the initial complaint because it wasn’t until after July 19 that lawyers became aware of the customer service representatives’ actions. When customers could not reach a local representative, they were transferred to a call center based in Texas, Lipman said.

“It became a method of operation (blaming high usage on customers) that we only learned about after July 19,” Lipman said.

The lawsuit is the latest in a string of allegations and investigations that have dogged the power company since the October storm.

The PUC is investigating CMP’s storm response, and an independent consultant has begun an audit of the company’s response to customers who received electric bills that were more than triple their normal bills after a cold snap last winter.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

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