SACRAMENTO, Calif — The California Public Utilities Commission voted Thursday to conceal messages between its leader and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office as they worked together to bail Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) out of the financial consequences of crimes.
PG&E was convicted of 85 felonies, including 84 counts of manslaughter for sparking the 2018 Camp Fire through a reckless and criminally negligent lack of maintenance on its power grid.
Despite finding that PG&E committed a rash of safety violations that deserved a $200 million fine, the CPUC voted to waive PG&E’s obligation to pay.
It was just a small part of a larger plan orchestrated by the governor’s office and the CPUC to rescue PG&E from bankruptcy and protect the company from its past and future wildfires.
After a CPUC whistleblower came forward, ABC10 requested messages between CPUC President Marybel Batjer and four key staffers in Newsom’s office under state transparency laws.
California’s constitution makes it clear the CPUC is supposed to operate independently of the administration.
Whistleblower Alice Stebbins, who served as the agency’s executive director, said it didn’t.
“We do whatever the governor tells us to do, period,” Stebbins said.
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What independence the agency had disappeared after Gov. Newsom took office and installed a new president to lead the five-member commission: former casino lobbyist Marybel Batjer, she said.
Batjer previously advised Republican governors in California and Nevada, but Stebbins found her an odd choice because she lacked experience in the energy sector.
“It became clear to me that she was put in that job because she would do exactly what the governor said,” Stebbins said. “I trusted our governor. I trusted my commissioners. And that was a mistake.”
Since the Camp Fire, PG&E has been charged with felonies and misdemeanors in the 2019 Kincade Fire and 2020 Zogg Fire, which killed four people including a child.
The same Butte County prosecutors who convicted PG&E of the Camp Fire crimes are investigating PG&E for the 2021 Dixie Fire.
Despite the pending criminal investigation, PG&E plans to take $150 million from the state insurance fund created by the bailout plan to cover the cost of damage done by the Dixie Fire.
NO DISCUSSION, NO ABSTENTION
Batjer, who has repeatedly declined to be interviewed about her handling of the PG&E crisis, did not abstain from Thursday’s vote even though her own messages are at issue.
The commissioners voted unanimously to keep the messages secret, making no discussion of the issue at all on the record.
Several members of the public did advocate in favor of releasing the records, attending the remote video meeting as disembodied voices through a toll-free phone line.
“The people who created the records Mr. Rittiman and ABC10 are seeking work for the people of California,” said Theresa McDonald. “There’s no possible public interest in concealing any information that might explain why the government continues to fail to compel PG&E to operate in Northern California without destroying public and private property and killing people.”
The commission did not avail itself of the opportunity Thursday to demonstrate that it means what it says on its website: that the agency is "committed to transparency.”
Even though the process has now dragged on for a year, far longer than the 24-day “time limit” set in state transparency laws, the agency has taken the position that ABC10 must jump through still more hoops before taking the agency to court for the records.
The California Supreme Court disagreed. Last month, the high court ruled that ABC10’s lawsuit for the records can proceed in the 1st District Court of Appeal.
After Thursday’s meeting ended, one commissioner, Clifford Rechtschaffen, tweeted that the CPUC “continues to support greater public access to information,” pointing to a different item on the agenda.