Pennsylvania's Public Utility Commission on Thursday cleared the way for a look into whether Verizon is properly maintaining its plants, lines, and facilities throughout the state.

In October, one of two unions now striking Verizon asked the commission to investigate what it described as hazardous conditions - broken poles, sagging cables, and ungrounded cables.

Verizon objected, writing that the Communications Workers of America "should not be permitted to commandeer the Commission's enforcement authority to . . . put regulatory pressure . . . as a labor negotiation strategy."

On Thursday, the strike against Verizon was nine days old.

The CWA had wanted the PUC's Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement to conduct the investigation, inspecting Verizon's physical facilities and records and presenting the findings to the commission for its ruling.

Thursday's decision changes the CWA's request for an investigation into a complaint, meaning that the union and other interested groups, such as AARP and Pennsylvania Working Families, and Verizon would present evidence to Administrative Law Judge Joel H. Cheskis.

Cheskis, who has scheduled a prehearing conference on May 26, will present his findings and recommendations for actions to the PUC.

Commissioners Gladys M. Brown, the chair; John F. Coleman; and Robert F. Powelson voted to switch the request for investigation to a complaint.

Commissioners Andrew G. Place and Pamela A. Witmer, who is leaving the commission at the end of the month to work for a utility company, disagreed. They said Cheskis instead should decide whether an investigation is warranted and move forward from there.

"We think this entire episode was intended to be a distraction. CWA's complaints are baseless and we'll respond accordingly," Verizon spokesman Richard Young said.

Scott Rubin, the lawyer who represented CWA before the PUC, said, "This is not some bargaining tactic. There are serious safety problems."

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