SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom has kept silent on the revelation that the California Public Utilities Commission got in the way of the criminal investigation of 85 felonies committed by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.
Newsom’s office ignored repeated requests to comment on the story, in which Butte County prosecutors detailed how the CPUC refused to share evidence and experts to aid their criminal investigation of PG&E.
The CPUC was "not cooperative and not an ally,” lead prosecutor Marc Noel said.
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey wondered aloud: “Why can’t we work together?”
The prosecutors spoke to ABC10 for our ongoing investigative series FIRE - POWER - MONEY. In an episode titled “Killer Corporation,” the prosecution team detailed the struggle to bring PG&E to justice for the largest corporate homicide ever to occur on U.S. soil: the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, along with the communities of Concow and Magalia.
The fire was the deadliest and most destructive in California history, killing at least 84 people and destroying 14,000 homes.
“As a state agency [the CPUC] had a duty to cooperate with the criminal investigation into the Camp Fire,” said Mike Aguirre, a former federal prosecutor who represents PG&E customers as a private attorney. “The CPUC put PG&E before its duty to cooperate with the Butte County DA.”
CPUC RESPONDS WITH MISDIRECTION
The CPUC, which regulates for-profit utilities like PG&E, is led by former casino lobbyist and Newsom appointee Marybel Batjer. Like the governor, President Batjer has also declined to comment on ABC10’s reporting.
In a written response, CPUC spokesperson Terrie Prosper deflected our questions. She pointed to a state law that deals with a similar, but fundamentally different subject.
Prosper said that the CPUC cooperated in the criminal investigation “within the requirements of Public Utilities Code section 583.” That utility law does not mention criminal investigations at all. PUC 583 does prohibit the “public” release of utility industry information, a way of protecting trade secrets.
The prosecution team in Butte County wanted evidence and expertise from the CPUC to use in building a felony case for a criminal prosecution, not to release the information publicly. Butte County indicted PG&E on 85 felony charges by use of a grand jury, a process that is shrouded in secrecy by California law.
“I’m not sure if a grand jury of a county counts as part of the ‘public,’” said former CPUC commissioner Catherine Sandoval, who teaches utilities law as a professor at Santa Clara University.
Only after a conviction do grand jury records become public in California, although the grand jury transcript in PG&E’s criminal case is currently being kept secret by a PG&E-funded lawsuit seeking to black out the names of employees involved. ABC10, joined by the Wall Street Journal, is opposing the suit in California’s Third District Court of Appeal.
WHAT CPUC DID (AND DIDN’T) DO
Even if the law governing the public release of information is interpreted to prohibit the confidential sharing of information with law enforcement, the same law gives the CPUC full discretion to release the information “on order of the commission.”
When asked whether the CPUC attempted to use that authority to share information and expertise with prosecutors, Prosper deflected by pointing out the complexity of the process her agency uses to release public information.
“Before information is released on order of the CPUC, a proposal is circulated for 30-day public comment before being brought for a vote by the CPUC at a public Voting Meeting,” Prosper wrote.
Prosper’s response did not address the more fundamental question ABC10 asked: Whether the CPUC ever attempted to actually use that process to ask the five voting commissioners to share what it knew with the prosecution team working on the Camp Fire?
“The CPUC failed to even use its authority to authorize cooperation under CPUC’s interpretation of the law,” attorney Mike Aguirre said.
ABC10 has filed formal requests for public records from the CPUC, seeking more detail about how the agency did or didn’t handle inquiries from the Camp Fire prosecutors.
‘THE INTEGRITY OF OUR OWN INVESTIGATION’
The CPUC offered a second bit of reasoning for how it behaved when asked to participate in the criminal investigation of the Camp Fire: that it wanted to protect “the integrity of our own investigation,” according to Prosper.
In addition to the 85 felonies PG&E committed in the Camp Fire, the CPUC’s own investigation found that the company violated a laundry list of state safety rules in sparking that fire along with several other deadly fires blamed on PG&E lines in 2017.
The five CPUC commissioners ended up voting unanimously to waive payment of a $200 million fine for those violations.
“There were massive multiple violations and these violations killed people,” Sandoval said told ABC10. “Part of the purpose of these penalties is to deter this conduct. Have you really deterred this conduct?”
PG&E is already the subject of a new homicide investigation, suspected of sparking the Zogg Fire in Shasta County in September. That fire killed four people, including a mother and daughter who died trying to escape in a pickup truck.
PG&E, ALREADY A FELON, GAVE MORE THAN $200,000 TO ELECT NEWSOM
Gavin Newsom was governor-elect when the Camp Fire started. Since taking office, he has worked to support PG&E’s financial prospects by pushing for and signing a state law that created a state wildfire fund.
The fund is intended to cover legal damages in the event PG&E and its fellow utilities start more wildfires in the future, funded by collections from ratepayers on their bills.
As the legislature worked on that law, ABC10 confronted Newsom about PG&E donations of more than $208,000 to help him win the governorship, especially in light of PG&E being a convicted felon. State campaign finance records show that PG&E gave both to Newsom’s campaign and to a pro-Newsom PAC in the 2018 campaign cycle.
Newsom dismissed it as a “strange question.”
In 2016, a jury convicted PG&E of six federal felonies connected to the eight deaths the company caused in the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion. PG&E began serving time on probation in early 2017.
Despite the felonies, which included obstructing the federal investigation of the explosion, Newsom accepted the company’s campaign contribution and repeatedly dodged our questions about whether he’d be willing to return it.
ABC10’s investigation also found that eight out of ten members of the California legislature and of the California delegation to Congress accepted money from PG&E after the company became a felon. The recipients included high-ranking members of both the Democratic and Republican parties, along with both state party organizations themselves.
Only a handful of politicians decided to part ways with their PG&E contributions, most notably U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Newsom has insisted that PG&E’s donations do not influence his official actions as governor. PG&E has met privately with the governor’s office numerous times, including during the time period that the bailout law was being formed.
PG&E ADMITTED ITS CAMP FIRE CRIMES
PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and one more felony for illegally sparking the Camp Fire through reckless criminal negligence of its duty to safely maintain a nearly 100-year old high voltage line.
A hook holding up a live wire on that line snapped in a windstorm on the morning of November 8, 2018.
Prosecutors say the hook was about 98 years old and that PG&E allowed it to hang in the windy Feather River Canyon so long that the metal wore down to about 1/8th of an inch thick. The hook was originally almost one inch thick by design.
“PG&E’s decision was just to let these things hang until they broke,” said lead prosecutor Marc Noel.
PG&E said that it doesn’t know exactly how old the hook was due to a lack of records.
The company has continued to resist efforts to improve its record-keeping, including those advocated by U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who supervises the company’s San Bruno probation.
“The way that they behave makes no rational sense for people who are supposed to know how to run an electric utility,” said Catherine Sandoval, the former CPUC commissioner. “This is why I have come to believe and be very concerned that they continue to engage in criminal thinking.”
PG&E paid $3.5 million as its fine for America’s largest corporate-caused homicide.
A human defendant would also have been punished with 90 years in prison, but the judge in the case pointed out that corporations cannot go to prison.
PG&E received no new time on probation in state court.
Alsup has contemplated an extension of PG&E’s federal probation. Without one, the company’s court supervision is set to expire in early 2022.