SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In the wake of the disaster that killed Sue Bullis’ teenage son, her husband, and her mother-in-law, a jury convicted the Pacific Gas and Electric Company of crimes punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
After the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion, the sentence PG&E received for six federal felony convictions never seemed like full justice to her.
“I was a little disappointed that it was only five years,” Bullis said.
Over the 95 minutes it took PG&E to shut off the pipeline that ruptured, the San Bruno disaster burned a volume of gas containing the amount of energy found in a 12-kiloton nuclear bomb.
It burned so intensely, rescuers were unable to identify any remains of Will Bullis, Sue’s son.
Prosecutors did not file homicide charges for the deaths, but a jury did convict PG&E of five felony counts of willfully breaking federal pipeline safety laws and one count of obstruction of the federal investigation. The company had falsified documents given to NTSB investigators.
Under American law, corporate entities that commit crimes can’t be sentenced to prison. PG&E automatically got a lighter sentence of probation, which federal law limits to a maximum of five years.
PG&E’s federal probation began on January 26, 2017. Five years in almost up.
ABC10 spoke to survivors from six different disasters sparked by PG&E for this story. All called on the federal judge in the case to keep PG&E on probation rather than allowing it to expire in January 2022.
“Do I feel they're rehabilitated? No. I really feel they've shown little to no remorse,” Bullis said. “It’s just disgusting.”
During each of its five years of probation, PG&E is accused or suspected of sparking at least one major wildfire. Collectively, the fires in question killed more than 100 people and burned tens of thousands of homes.
If PG&E’s probation term does expire, it will happen in spite of at least 85 egregious violations of the first condition of its probation: “While on probation, PG&E shall not commit another federal, state, or local crime.”
Last year, PG&E pleaded guilty to the felony manslaughter of 84 people and an additional felony for sparking the 2018 Camp Fire through the company’s reckless and criminally negligent maintenance practices.
“If I was on probation and went and committed 85 more felonies, there would be consequences for that,” said retired firefighter Steve Bradley. “Family members, loved ones, my grandma: killed by PG&E, they were victims of PG&E.”
PG&E has since been charged with new felonies and misdemeanors in the 2019 Kincade and 2020 Zogg Fires.
The company disputes the charges, which include four counts of felony involuntary manslaughter.
“This is a nightmare we will never wake up from,” said Suzie Bewley, whose 8-year-old granddaughter Feyla McLeod died in a pickup truck alongside her mom while running from the Zogg Fire. “No other family should have to go through this. We are all empty.”
PG&E avoided criminal charges for a group of wildfires in 2017, but paid civil damages for fires that killed 44 people.
The 2021 Dixie Fire is also under investigation for possible criminal charges against PG&E, whose power lines are the lone suspected cause. It is the largest single wildfire by acreage in California history.
Despite those new disasters, several of which resulted in probation violations on PG&E’s record, the company is still set to get off of probation when the five years is up on Jan. 26, 2022.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who supervises PG&E’s sentence, has said he doesn’t believe he can add time to PG&E’s probation.
Survivors want him to try anyway, hoping to keep PG&E under court supervision until it can demonstrate the ability to deliver energy safely.
“I don’t think the justice system ever envisioned this,” said former federal prosecutor Tom Johnson, who had tried corporate defendants before and is uninvolved in PG&E’s case. “[Probation] hasn’t functioned as it was intended to function.”
Johnson says federal prosecutors count on corporate offenders to take criminal convictions seriously enough to avoid reoffending.
“Because there's been more fires, more deaths, you would have to say PG&E is performing poorly,” Johnson said of PG&E’s record. “They are consistently, annually violating their probation. They're not being rehabilitated.”
CAN THE FIVE YEAR LIMIT BE EXTENDED?
PG&E’s additional disasters haven’t sat well with Judge Alsup.
He’s called PG&E a “terror” and “recalcitrant criminal” that “deserves to be in prison.” He said PG&E was “robbing” money from safety to “enhance the bottom line.”
Since the Camp Fire, he’s said PG&E’s safety work is still “crappy.” He spelled that on the record: “C-R-A-P-P-Y.”
Alsup went so far as to ask federal prosecutors whether he could add more years to PG&E’s probation.
“The answer is not immediately clear,” the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco replied in a brief. “The Court may have the authority to revoke PG&E’s probation and impose a new probation term of up to five years, but there appears to be no binding authority on point.”
To a judge, this is a red flag.
“They're essentially saying, ‘we don't think you can do it, but if you want to, here's what you would do,’” Johnson said.
Put simply: Alsup would have to try to establish his authority to extend PG&E’s probation without precedent in past case law and without a federal statute that explicitly says he can.
“The law actually says five years. That's it,” Johnson said. “I just think he's without options.”
SURVIVORS: TRY ANYWAY
ABC10 explained this shaky legal ground to the group of survivors who spoke with us for this story.
They all had the same message to the judge.
“I think it's very important that we try anyway,” Steve Bradley said. “Even if it fails, at least the attempt was made.”
“[Judge Alsup] has that ability to… at least attempt to set the case law to where we can hold them accountable,” Bradley said.
Bradley called PG&E’s 85 convictions for the Camp Fire the “perfect time” to set the precedent for punishing a corporate offender who violates probation, adding that he was more worried about the precedent that would be set by letting PG&E’s probation end.
“It sets a tone for other corporations. It sets a precedent that they can save money at the expense of human lives,” Bradley said. “I understand we can’t put a building in jail, but there must be consequences.”
“What’s frustrating to me is the fact that as a law enforcement officer, I saw consequences occur to felons who violated their probation,” former Chico police chief Kirk Trostle said in one of several video messages from survivors that ABC10 shared with the judge.
Trostle lived in Paradise, where his house burned to the ground in the fire PG&E started.
“PG&E executives and their board members were able to slaughter 85-plus members of our community in Paradise, yet there’s no consequence to their actions,” Trostle said. “It appears to me that PG&E, who are convicted felons, are living a felon’s Paradise.”
Survivors of multiple PG&E disasters recorded these video messages asking U.S. District Judge William Alsup to attempt to keep PG&E on probation, which would be an unprecedented legal step. ABC10’s FIRE -POWER-MONEY investigation gathered the messages and shared them with the judge.
“How else do you hold these types to their crime,” said 2015 Butte Fire survivor Terry McBride in a video statement to the judge. “I ask that you seriously consider extending that period of time until they can prove they are worthy. Because all I’ve seen come out of [PG&E] are lies.”
THE LEGAL ARGUMENT FOR MORE PROBATION: SAFETY
Some attorneys see a good argument for Judge Alsup to try extending PG&E’s probation.
“This isn’t just detention at school,” Santa Clara University law professor Catherine Sandoval. “You have 115 people who have died due to PG&E’s actions while on probation. If they were a person, not only would they be in jail, but they’d be looking at a death sentence.”
“But there’s no corporate death sentence,” she added.
Sandoval, who represents PG&E customers pro bono in the probation, agrees that PG&E is “guaranteed” to appeal any additional probation time.
She agrees there’s a significant possibility that such an appeal from PG&E might succeed.
But, she adds, the fact that PG&E pleaded guilty to 85 felonies during probation makes for a compelling case in favor of extending.
As a former California public utilities commissioner who regulated the company, she fears California will be less safe if PG&E is allowed off probation.
While the probation hasn’t managed to stop PG&E from sparking new disasters, Judge Alsup has repeatedly used probation to force PG&E to make changes in their wake.
Sandoval says the probation has also played another important safety role: forcing PG&E to be more transparent about its wildfire problem.
State investigations run by the CPUC, her former agency, tend to be secretive and slow.
“We don’t find out the details for a year and a half. Or maybe much later,” Sandoval said.
By contrast, Judge Alsup has forced PG&E to give him answers and evidence in a public setting.
The judge revealed PG&E contractors had marked the tree that fell on the power line that sparked the Zogg Fire.
It’s how the families of the four people killed know PG&E could have fixed the safety problem, but didn't.
Judge Alsup also brought to light facts explaining why PG&E’s safety shutoff program failed to prevent that fire.
Most of the key details known about PG&E’s involvement in the 2021 Dixie Fire also became public through Alsup’s court.
This kind of transparency will be gone if the probation supervision ends.
“It is like a light on, light off. If you are off probation, you're off,” said Tom Johnson. “When the court supervision is gone, then it's gone, and then PG&E is a corporate entity that's going to act the way it's going to act.”
CAN PG&E BE REHABILITATED?
Asked to explain whether it has been rehabilitated and why it believes it deserves to get off of probation, PG&E did not directly answer.
PG&E’s report does not claim that the company is rehabilitated, but does claim that PG&E has made “progress.”
Many of the examples it points to are changes Judge Alsup pushed for in the wake of new fires.
PG&E also wrote that it “looks forward” to delivering energy safely “in the years ahead.”
That makes no sense to Steve Bradley, who says PG&E shouldn’t get off probation until it has some disaster free years behind it.
“I'd be happy with a couple of years, but I don't think five years is too much to ask,” Bradley said. “The rehabilitation of PG&E, it saves lives. Not only civilians, but my friends and family in Cal Fire.”
Bradley urges Californians to ask whether rehabilitation is possible for this repeat corporate offender, which holds a monopoly license over power to 16 million people.
“I don't know that PG&E as it exists, as we know it, can be rehabilitated,” Bradley said. “They clearly haven't been. I think the last five years have shown that. I think the question is can they be?”
“I do know that power, electricity, gas can be delivered safely,” he added. “I just don't know if PG&E can do it on their own, without being forced into it.”
Sue Bullis has seen enough. She sees PG&E as a corporation beyond redemption.
“Nothing they could do at this point would satisfy me,” she said.
She’s still a PG&E customer, something she has to deal with to avoid triggering her PTSD.
“I don't open the bill. I let an accountant pay it,” Bullis said. “It's the insignia on the envelope and on the paperwork that I have a problem with. It just triggers me every single time I get the bill in the envelope.”
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.
Watch more from ABC10:
ABC10’s investigation found California politicians kept taking money from PG&E after the company pleaded guilty to 84 felony manslaughters. Evidence of PG&E’s crimes is beginning to come out and the company faces new criminal investigations for sparking deadly, destructive wildfires.