Bankrupt telecom's shareholders organize

Thursday, May 16th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ About 300 Williams Communications stockholders met Thursday to discuss ways their nearly worthless shares could be saved from elimination in the company's bankruptcy plan.

Investors pouring into the meeting at a Tulsa theater heard about efforts to bring a class-action lawsuit against the broadband wholesaler and about attempts to secure stockholder representation in bankruptcy court.

``All the stockholders want is enough shares in the new company to buy a bowl of soup,'' said organizer Phil Redman, who stands to lose $200,000 in the bankruptcy. ``We just want a seat at the table.''

Williams filed for Chapter 11 on April 22 under a plan that would divide shares in its post-bankruptcy organization between bondholders and its former parent company. Stockholders would get nothing.

The Tulsa-based telecom amassed debts of $7.15 billion and assets of $5.99 billion while constructing a 33,000-mile fiber-optic network.

Bankruptcy came just more than a year after its spinoff from Williams Cos., a Tulsa-based energy concern, and just weeks after the company reported an unexpected $2.6 billion asset writedown.

Williams Communications said the company had no choice but to leave shareholders out of the reorganized company because bankruptcy law requires it to repay creditors first.

``Williams Communications recognizes that good, hardworking people, many of whom are our own employees, invested in our company,'' Williams Communications said in a statement. ``We feel badly about their losses, but our hands are tied.''

Williams Cos. acknowledged that its former subsidiary's ``bankruptcy is a great concern to many people,'' but would not comment further.

Most investors at the meeting said they felt cheated because Williams Communications executives assured them that shareholder value would not be diluted and offered positive financial projections almost until the end.

``I went into this with open eyes,'' said Tulsan Ron Gard, who works for Williams Cos. and invested almost $12,000 in Williams Communications. ``It's not that I'm losing my investment money, it's the way I'm losing it that's the issue.''

Others expressed suspicions about Williams Cos. motives in spinning off its communications subsidiary, which it now stands to regain in streamlined form freed from most of its debt.

``You wonder how Williams can spin this off, wipe out all the shareholders and then own half the company,'' said Steve Brown, who works in financial services in Tulsa. ``I don't know if that was their intention, but it sure seemed to work out pretty nicely for them.''

Investors came from several states, but most were from Tulsa, where the hometown company's stock is one of the most widely held. Redman said more than 200 stockholders, with investments of more than $10 million, had pre-registered. Even more registered at the door.

Redman said he was pleased that the Securities and Exchange Commission had urged the judge overseeing retailer Kmart Corp.'s bankruptcy to appoint a trustee to represent shareholders.

Redman, who owns a convention management company in Tulsa, said the urging could set a precedent applicable to this case.

``This is not the pie-in-the sky thing that Williams Communications and Williams Cos. would have you believe,'' he said.