By LARRY NEUMEISTER Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK -- AT&T Inc. and BellSouth Corp. were added as defendants to a lawsuit seeking $200 billion in damages from phone companies accused of violating privacy laws by turning over phone records to the government, lawyers said Tuesday.
The companies were added to a lawsuit filed Friday by two New Jersey lawyers in U.S. District Court in Manhattan that accused Verizon Communications Inc. of turning over records for a federal secret surveillance program.
The lawsuit also now includes 26 plaintiffs from 18 states who contacted two public interest lawyers after hearing about the lawsuit, the lawyers said at a news conference outside the courthouse.
The lawsuit claims the companies violated the Telecommunications Act and the Constitution by turning over the records to the government.
The lawsuit was filed after USA Today Thursday identified AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth as companies that complied after the Sept. 11,2001, terrorist attacks with a National Security Agency request for tens of millions of customer phone records.
In a statement, Atlanta-based BellSouth has said it had no evidence it was contacted by the spy agency or that it gave the government access to any customers' phone call records.
"Based on our review to date, we have confirmed no such contract exists and we have not provided bulk customer calling records to the NSA," the statement said.
New York-based AT&T spokesman Larry Solomon said in an e-mail Tuesday that at AT&T, "we vigorously protect our customers' privacy."
He said the company does not allow wiretapping without a court order and has not given customer information to law enforcement authorities or government agencies without legal authorization.
Solomon said the company has "an obligation to assist law enforcement and other government agencies responsible for protecting the public welfare, whether it be an individual or the security interests of the entire nation."
But he said when government agencies ask AT&T for help, the company responds "strictly within the law and under the most stringent conditions."
He added: "Beyond that, we can't comment on matters of national security. This is a national security issue and needs to be addressed on a national level."
Verizon has said it could not confirm or deny whether the company participated in the NSA program but promised any access to customer records would be limited.
"Verizon does not, and will not, provide any government agency unfettered access to our customer records or provide information to the government under circumstances that would allow a fishing expedition," the company said.
Since the lawsuit was filed, New Jersey lawyers Carl J. Mayer and Bruce I. Afran said their offices have been flooded with phone calls and e-mails from people across the country who want to join the action as plaintiffs.
"Some are outright outraged at what the government is doing," Mayer said.
Others, including dozens of lawyers, have offered to provide legal expertise, he said.
He cited an e-mail from one Studio City, Calif., man who wrote that he was not looking for money but just wanted "to protect my civil liberties."
He also noted an e-mail from a West Newbury, Mass., man who said he called Verizon to complain about an invasion of privacy and was forwarded to a supervisor who asked, "Are you involved in a criminal activity such that you are concerned with us turning over your records?"
Mayer said the lawyers might seek to subpoena President Bush or others in the White House to get to the truth of the scandal.
Afran said the lawsuit was not politically motivated, and added that he has been a supporter of many of the administration's policies.
"Never in the United States have we seen such widespread abuse of basic civil rights," he said.
Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc. Copyright 2006 Associated Press
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