OROVILLE, Calif. — Butte County Supervisors hoped to get answers on behalf of the thousands of people PG&E burned out of their homes.
Instead, they got “basically told to pound sand” by the retired judge who runs the trust fund for PG&E’s victims.
“I’m not interested in dealing with you,” retired judge John Trotter said in a voicemail to county staff, referring to the county’s leaders as “you people.”
He took offense at a letter the county’s five elected supervisors voted to send him in May.
It shared complaints about a “lack of communication” and “minimal payments” that have left some of the fire victims living “on the streets.”
“If you really want to know anything about the trust, I would assume that like everybody else you would call and ask, rather than coming to uninformed, slanderous conclusions,” Trotter’s voicemail continued. “When and if you get to that point, I’ll talk to you."
PG&E fire victims haven’t been paid in full. Roughly half of the nearly 70,000 victims represented by the trust haven’t been paid anything at all.
The trust oversees the sale of shares of PG&E stock, which were supposed to provide half of a $13.5 billion settlement to victims of the Camp Fire, PG&E’s 2017 fires, and the 2015 Butte Fire.
The remaining 377 million shares would need to reach a value of $14.68 to make victims whole.
Ticker symbol PCG closed at $9.98 per share after Tuesday trading, leaving fire victims $1.8 billion short of the stated value of their settlement.
ABC10 previously reported on the Trust's role in holding onto a large portion of PG&E stock as part of a bankruptcy deal brokered by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The deal was part of a broader plan to protect PG&E from the consequences of its crimes and future wildfires, which also involved the company's ostensibly-independent state regulators at the CPUC.
Trotter has declined repeated requests to be interviewed by ABC10 and the trust did not provide any comment by the deadline for this story.
He has previously asked Gov. Newsom and the state legislature to help try to make the victims whole, but so far no solution has emerged from the Capitol.
The governor walked away without answering when we asked about the shortage of funds last year.
Trotter's irate voicemail first aired on television this month on Chico station KRCR in a story that featured a fire survivor who missed her rent payment while waiting on the money she expected the trust to deliver.
“They’re gonna take my trailer,” Teri Lindsay said. “I’m not gonna have a place to live. I could live in my truck.”
By contrast, retired judge Trotter makes $125,000 per month running the trust, according to its documents.
“What he makes an hour is more than some of our impacted residents make in a month,” supervisor Bill Connelly said.
In an editorial, the Chico Enterprise-Record blasted Trotter for an attempt to play the victim, calling his voicemail message “the height of arrogance, a callous flip-off to people who are guilty of nothing other than being burned out of their homes.”
The county’s May 24 letter had asked six specific questions about money being paid to victims and spent by the trust on overhead.
On Tuesday, the five commissioners met to decide how to respond to Trotter.
They thought about sending another letter:
“Many of our constituents have complained to us about the lack of professionalism in communication from the Fire Victims Trust. The Board is now much more able to empathize with those critiques,” a draft read.
But ultimately, the board voted to have County staff start taking a deeper look at the trust and how best to force it to behave in a more transparent manner.
The supervisors want staff to come up with a proposed strategy for dealing with the shortfall created by PG&E's slumping stock.
That problem is a bigger bear than the current market.
"PG&E keeps burning things down, so their stock keeps going down," Teeter said.
The supervisors directed Butte County staff to work on an active proposal in PG&E’s bankruptcy court case, which would create a process for fire survivors to make the trust answer their questions.
“Victims are asking questions about how their money is being spent. This is their money,” said Will Abrams, who survived when his home burned in the 2017 Tubbs Fire.
He was upset when the Fire Victim Trust wouldn’t break down its $93 million of expenses in more detail, so he asked PG&E’s bankruptcy judge to open a process for fire survivors to compel the trust to provide records and answers.
Judge Dennis Montali set a timeline stretching into next month for the trust and Abrams to respond to each other. Butte County now also plans to weigh in.
“We feel that we can go along into this hearing response that the bankruptcy judge has done and demand answers,” Teeter said.
“I think if it was more open to the public in a complete manner we wouldn’t have as deep of concerns,” added Connelly.
Abrams sees similarities between the attitudes of PG&E and the trust in charge of compensating its victims.
“Any time individuals in a position of power are being so secretive, and are being dismissive of honest questions, straightforward questions, it should give everyone pause.”
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.