Retired group accuses US West


— A group of US West retirees has asked Minnesota regulators not to approve the company's planned merger with Qwest Communications International unless more pension protections are established.

The Association of US West Retirees, which has about 1,000 Minnesota members among its membership of 12,000, is accusing the Denver-based telephone company of misusing surplus pension funds.

In a complaint filed with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission Jan. 3, the association accused US West of withholding pension increases over several years for 45,000 employees in 14 states. The group says the money was used to build up a $3.3 billion surplus in the $12.9 billion pension plan that could be used for non-pension purposes.

Arnie Albrecht of St. Paul, a spokesman for the retirees group, said the company had cut back sharply on what once were regular cost-of-living increases in its pension payments so it could build up the surplus.

''There was nothing written'' about pension increases, he said. ''However, there was a pattern established by having regular pension increases until about 1990, but then they trickled off and now there's nothing. Employees were led to believe that the pattern would continue.''

The retirees also alleged that US West diverted more than $160 million from the pension fund in 1998 and 1999 to help pay for retiree health care benefits.

US West denied any misuse.

''All earned pension benefits are guaranteed and protected by federal law,'' said Kim Bothun, a US West spokeswoman in Minneapolis.

The association issued a news release Tuesday saying the surplus ''can be raided to improve (US West's) bottom line rather than be used for the retiree benefits intended by regulators.''

The group also said the pension surplus could be used for pensions for Qwest's 8,700 employees after the merger.

The association asked the Public Utilities Commission to pull funds from the pension plan to create a separate fund for Minnesota retirees. The association also asked that US West be required to negotiate a mutually acceptable plan that would address the group's concerns as a condition of merger approval.

Bothun said US West opposes a separate fund.

''The current fund has more than sufficient funds to assure that pension obligations can be satisfied into the foreseeable future,'' she said.

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