SACRAMENTO, Calif — A California appeals court on Wednesday rejected a PG&E-funded lawsuit that concealed details of the company’s crimes in the 2018 Camp Fire. It's a step toward allowing the public to read the record of the case.
At issue is whether the public can read the 7,000-page transcript of the criminal grand jury in Butte County that charged PG&E, including the names of some 200 PG&E employees who appear in the documents.
In a unanimous opinion rendered Wednesday, the Third District Court of Appeal decided the public can, writing “it is not a close question.”
The justices ruled against PG&E workers who wanted their names blacked out of the documents.
If the ruling is not appealed to the state supreme court, the records can be made available to the public in 60 days.
“We are pleased with the decision,” Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said. “We feel that this is a victory for the First Amendment and the light of day.”
ABC10 made legal arguments for release of the documents in the case, joined by the Wall Street Journal.
Under California law, grand jury transcripts are supposed to be released to the public ten days after the case is completed, which would have been in June 2020.
“We are hopeful that any further delay will not occur,” Ramsey said.
PG&E pleaded guilty to all 85 criminal charges in the grand jury’s indictment: 84 felony counts of manslaughter and one felony arson count for sparking the Camp Fire through criminal negligence.
But the record of the PG&E case has been kept secret due to the lawsuit.
The names of the 22 PG&E workers who filed it were accidentally released by their attorneys. They were identified last year in an ABC10 story about the criminal records that have been kept secret.
The Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento sealed the entire 7,000 page record while the suit has been pending for a year and a half.
The secrecy — and the fact that PG&E paid for the lawsuit — offends family members of the people killed in the fire.
“I would love to know the entire factors of what caused the fire that took my grandma,” said Steve Bradley, the grandson of Colleen Riggs, one of PG&E’s manslaughter victims. “But they don't want to release that to the public.”
PG&E has previously defended its funding of the lawsuit as a "wildfire related" expense.
The documents contain details of what PG&E knew, when PG&E knew it, and the ways that PG&E put profits over safety, according to the prosecutors.
The documents could prove helpful to new criminal cases already filed against PG&E for the Zogg and Kincade Fires. The prosecutors in those cases had to ask for permission to read the transcripts.
The District Attorney’s office did agree to black out the names of some PG&E workers when the documents are released to the public, but only the names of local employees who could be at risk because they still live and work in the area where the fire burned.
The appeals court ruled that was a reasonable way to decide who could be named and who could not, which means most of the approximately 200 PG&E employees named in the documents would not be redacted.
“The evidence showed that local PG&E employees had direct experience of harassment and violence from members of the community affected by the fire,” presiding Justice Vance Raye wrote in the opinion. “PG&E employees who lived outside the area did not have similar experiences.”
GO DEEPER: This story is part of ABC10's FIRE - POWER - MONEY reporting project. If you have a tip that could reveal more about California's crisis with utilities and wildfires, please contact investigative reporter Brandon Rittiman at firstname.lastname@example.org.