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One of U S West's attorneys in the case, in fact, all but admitted the manipulations in a memo that the company accidentally gave to the NLRB along with other subpoenaed documents.

As part of her preparation to defend U S West, attorney Janice Procter-Murphy last year drafted an "Account Summary" of the Zukerman account.

The NLRB records show that someone accidentally included the summary in a batch of records that was turned over to the government. Procter-Murphy and U S West asked the judge in the case to force the NLRB to give the document back, but the judge ruled against them.

Procter-Murphy's summary indicates that Ortega was overpaid on the Zukerman accounts and that, in at least one case, Zukerman was never even billed for some of his advertising.

The Zukerman account, the government alleges, is just one of many that were manipulated by Ortega, Wheeler or other union officials. In all, the NLRB is investigating more than 20 advertising accounts placed under various Yellow Pages headings, including attorneys, electrical-repair services and insurance companies.

To an outsider, the whole affair may seem like little more than an airing of one company's dirty laundry. But to the NLRB, the account manipulations are the underpinnings of a more sinister problem.

Labor unions, of course, are supposed to represent their members, protecting their rights, bargaining with management and making sure whatever contracts are signed are implemented fairly for all members.

When someone--either union or company--runs afoul of the rules, those who believe they have been mistreated can go to the National Labor Relations Board for help.

Nationwide, the NLRB handles tens of thousands of complaints each year. Only a minute fraction of those reach the point where the U S West case is today.

In this case, the NLRB is arguing that IBEW Local 1269 has effectively sold out its membership. Under what is technically called an 8(a)2 complaint--an allegation seldom pressed by the NLRB, because it is so hard to prove--the government is arguing that the IBEW local and U S West management have formed an unholy alliance.

By allowing union officials to manipulate their accounts to make more money, the government argues, the company has penalized the 50 or so other salespeople in the Phoenix office who are forced to play by the rules.

A by-product of that, the government argues, is that the customers of union officials receive preferential treatment in their advertising programs that other Yellow Pages advertisers do not enjoy.

The alliance, the government argues, leads to labor-law violations like the firings of Smith and Seagraves.

And union members say it also raises troubling questions about how well their union is representing them in bargaining talks. Many workers were unhappy with the contract negotiated on their behalf in 1992.

The local's contract is up again for negotiations next year, and there are already rumblings about the possibility of a strike. That's assuming, of course, that the IBEW survives at U S West Direct.

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David Pasztor