SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Criminal homicide cases can bring out extraordinary but necessary pain as details of deadly crimes are laid bare in court for victims and the public to hear.
In the case of America’s deadliest homicide committed by a corporation, the victims’ families have had to deal with the opposite.
“The guilty party should never be able to hide their crimes,” said Steve Bradley, whose 96-year-old grandmother Colleen Riggs was one of PG&E’s 84 manslaughter victims.
At the same time it pleaded guilty in 2020 to killing 84 people in the 2018 Camp Fire, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company paid for a lawsuit sealing the most detailed record of its crimes: the transcript of a secret yearlong grand jury investigation into PG&E’s culpability.
After arguing to the court for transparency of these records, ABC10 has finally obtained them.
We’re making all 5,300 pages available to survivors and the public with this story.
“They pled guilty, and at that point, everything they did should have come out,” said Phil Binstock, whose father Julian was found dead in his burned home after the Camp Fire.
California law makes grand jury transcripts open to the public. Ordinarily, these records would have come out within 10 days of the grand jury’s indictment.
Instead, thousands of pages of testimony from PG&E employees and other witnesses were kept secret for the past two years because of the PG&E-funded lawsuit.
The suit, which sought to redact the names of PG&E employees, was defeated in a state appeals court.
Earlier this year, the California Supreme Court declined to take up an appeal, making the records available for purchase.
The Wall Street Journal joined with ABC10 to obtain the records.
“I think it's vitally important that people know who did what, when,” said Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey after defeating the lawsuit. “With the evidence that we had, they were going to be convicted.”
POWER LINE INSPECTORS TESTIFIED UNDER OATH
The fire sparked when a 97-year-old hook snapped, dropping the live wire it was holding up on the company’s old Caribou-Palermo transmission line.
Several PG&E workers who performed inspections of the power line testified before the grand jury.
One of the first to take the witness table stopped answering questions and pulled a note from his pocket.
“I respectfully deny to answer based on my privilege under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution,” said Buck Arden, who used to inspect the power line as a PG&E transmission troubleman.
He is named only as “Witness #1” in the transcripts because prosecutors allowed him and other local Butte County employees of PG&E to have their names redacted. ABC10 identified him and other employees through PG&E inspection reports and other documents obtained from years of public records requests.
“I don't blame the inspector that's out there that isn't trained. That's not his fault,” said Bradley.
Prosecutors saw it that way, too.
They weren’t after line-level employees. They wanted the troublemens’ answers to go after PG&E and its leaders, the suspects in the case.
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In a hearing that remains secret, judge Michael Deems granted something called “use immunity.”
Arden had to talk, but his answers would only be used to prosecute the company. His words could not be used against him, personally. Almost every PG&E worker who testified asked for this same immunity deal.
“Every day we fought [PG&E],” Arden told the jurors after getting immunity. “I've been fired once already for fighting them.”
He went on to say that during his inspections, “I wrote up everything that I saw that I could possibly physically write up.”
HOW PG&E MISSED GLARING SAFETY PROBLEMS
Prosecutors weren’t satisfied by Arden’s answer. They had already flown along the Caribou-Palermo line in the county sheriff’s helicopter, teaching themselves how to do more effective inspections than PG&E.
It wasn’t hard. They figured out all they needed to do was look at the top of the hooks. They found more severely worn hooks “all over the line,” several on the verge of breaking, using their eyes and a digital camera you could buy at Walmart.
“Why, if we can see this, couldn't you?” Noel asked.
Part of the answer is the troublemen inspecting the line didn’t think it was possible to see the problem from the air.
“You would have to be at the exact angle,” troubleman Jeff Sharp testified. It “would be a hazardous position for yourself and the helicopter.”
Prosecutors pushed back, displaying one of their own photos of an obviously worn hook.
“Okay. But, obviously, this photograph is taken from a helicopter,” Noel pressed.
“Yep,” Noel continued. “That photograph was taken by a law enforcement officer who has no training, no experience.”
“But he, he knew he wanted to take a picture of that,” Sharp answered.
That’s the problem, prosecutors argue. Why didn’t PG&E want pictures of that?
They had a theory.
“Because if you find it, you have to fix it, and to fix it costs money,” Noel said in an interview. “The inspections and patrols that PG&E was doing were not designed to actually find these problems.”
“If you never change the tires, you're gonna get a flat,” added Bradley.
Multiple PG&E troublemen testified they didn’t know they needed to look for worn hooks during their inspections.
“I had not ever heard of a C-hook failing,” troubleman Darin Clark testified, adding he didn’t know the hooks were capable of breaking.
“Didn't know that they existed,” confirmed Sharp, asked about worn hooks.
“There is no training” on looking for worn hooks and similar attachment points on PG&E transmission lines, confirmed Jeff Simmons.
Damning answers for the company, because PG&E and its leaders did know.
The grand jury saw proof: PG&E’s own studies on worn hooks and eye holes going back as early 1987, and as recently as 2018.
The author of the 2018 study looked at his own photos of eye holes worn out by hooks and compared them to the eye holes taken from the power line in the Camp Fire.
“Looks very similar, the material and the pattern of wear,” testified Peter Martin, a former scientist in PG&E’s materials lab in San Ramon.
He concluded the parts would wear through when they reached 97 to 100-years-old.
But the workers actually inspecting 97-year-old power lines in Butte County never got those findings, they testified.
Did PG&E’s leaders take any action after the study?
“No,” said David Hernandez, the supervisor who ordered it. Not that he knew.
“Those are the people that are trying to do the right thing,” said lead prosecutor Noel. “The problem in PG&E's culture is that those people are not appreciated and rewarded. The people who get appreciated and rewarded are the people who come in under budget. That's where the whole system of bonuses comes in.”
FOLLOW THE MONEY
The meat of the Camp Fire case is in PG&E’s business decisions.
Looking at PG&E’s bonuses, investigators found what insiders called “red-green reports.”
PG&E emailed the reports each month to regional transmission line supervisors, with color-coded numbers highlighting their performance on the unit costs of inspections.
“Red is bad. Green is good,” said Joe Little, who supervised the Caribou-Palermo line.
“Yes,” PG&E used this to set employee bonuses, he confirmed.
“They incentivized not taking proper care of their equipment financially,” Bradley said.
“That's how little they think of human life,” added Binstock.
Prosecutors found PG&E cut the number of scheduled inspections it performed and the time allowed to do them.
“They only give you X amount of time,” Arden testified. “They don't like you running the jobs over.”
“This is the kind of constant pressure that's being put on the people who are actually doing the work by the financial people,” Noel explained.
PG&E used to give the Caribou-Palermo line three scheduled inspections a year, but in the 1990s, PG&E started making cuts.
By the time of the Camp Fire, the power line only got one inspection every five years and one so-called “air patrol” in the other four years.
"That's not a patrol. That's a fly-by,” said Chuck Stinnett.
Decades ago, he flew inspections “low and slow” for the company to really look at the hundreds of parts on each tower. But in more recent years, PG&E cut the time allowed to look at each tower.
“Oh, gosh, I mean it's -- realistically, it's seconds,” Simmons testified.
Flight plans confirmed it. Prosecutors showed Stinnett PG&E’s plans to look at “almost 1,700 (towers) in a six-hour” shift.
That’s less than 13 seconds to fly past each tower.
“I- I- I don't know how to respond,” Stinnett said. “I am devastated by the information that I see.”
‘GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT’
Prosecutors say bad inspections led to bad information from the field and bad decisions about which old power lines PG&E needed to replace.
“We had already established that the inspection and patrol policies were garbage,” lead prosecutor Noel said. “If you're putting garbage in, you're going to get garbage out.”
Prosecutor Jen Dupre-Tokos tried to get a PG&E executive to admit that on the record.
David Gabbard, the PG&E executive who was in charge of making five-year replacement plans for PG&E’s transmission lines, replied with this:
“Can you define garbage?”
“Are you serious,” Dupre-Tokos asked.
“Yes, I am,” Gabbard replied.
Prosecutors didn’t find it cute.
“Yeah, that was a little frustrating at the time,” Noel said.
Gabbard eventually went on to concede the point: faulty data could lead to faulty plans.
As PG&E’s Senior Director of Transmission Asset Management, Gabbard testified he didn’t know PG&E had “100 year old [parts] still hanging in towers.”
He was among the most senior PG&E officials to testify. Prosecutors were willing to give him immunity because they didn’t think he could be blamed for causing the Camp Fire. Gabbard started creating the five-year plans shortly before the disaster.
“Mr. Gabbard was was the first mate on the Titanic and was handed the steering wheel just as the iceberg was ripping in,” Noel explained.
‘WHY ARE THOSE PEOPLE NOT IN PRISON?’
Gabbard testified he knew PG&E had “prominent” risks of wildfire from “deteriorated and dilapidated infrastructure.”
He also confirmed personally telling that to the people at the top of PG&E:
Q: “Your direct supervisor, Kevin Dasso?”
Q: “(His) direct supervisor Patrick Hogan?”
Q: “President [and CEO] Geisha Williams?”
“This was not an accident. This was murder by omission,” said Binstock. “Why are those people not in prison?”
“Because we ran out of time,” Noel said.
By law, California limits grand jury investigations to one year. Even if they’d had more time, prosecutors aren’t sure they could have developed enough hard evidence to convict individual executives of crimes.
Still, they felt it was important to call the Camp Fire what it was: crime.
“It wasn't just an accident. It wasn't just a simple negligence,” Bradley said. “It was an entire corporation failing for years and years and years and just rotting from the inside and not caring.”
‘CULTURE EATS STRATEGY FOR BREAKFAST’
No one got prison time for the Camp Fire.
As its sentence for 85 felonies, including 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter, PG&E paid the maximum $3.5 million fine; pocket change compared to its annual revenue.
“All PG&E has learned from its history is how to better conceal its crimes in the future,” Noel believes.
PG&E says it’s making itself safer. It did change many of the strategies outlined in this story.
But there’s a saying in business: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” (Writer Peter Drucker is credited with the phrase.)
“If they're not held accountable, well, the culture works,” Bradley said. “Everybody's happy, and you know, everybody's making money. So what's the problem with the culture?”
CEO Geisha Williams left after the fire.
John Simon took over awhile. He’s still PG&E’s top lawyer.
The next CEO, Bill Johnson, pleaded guilty 85 times on PG&E’s behalf in 2020.
A different Bill, Bill Smith, took over the next day as interim CEO.
“We won’t see you back at another one of these,” ABC10 asked him outside the courthouse.
“No sir,” he replied.
Just three months after he said that, the Zogg Fire killed four people in Shasta County. The victims include an 8-year-old girl: Feyla McLeod, who burned to death with her mother Alaina.
PG&E faces four new felony manslaughter charges.
Smith is still on PG&E’s board, but he’s been replaced as CEO by Patti Poppe.
“We did not commit a crime,” Poppe said in a public relations video around the time the charges were announced.
This year, Poppe skipped the court date for PG&E’s arraignment. PG&E sent a team to Shasta County who pleaded not guilty to the Zogg Fire without her.
Poppe has insisted this time PG&E’s culture really is changing.
She’s seen ABC10’s investigations, but has only ever offered to speak with us off the record, which we declined to do.
Poppe has appeared elsewhere, but her PR team has repeatedly declined to grant interviews for this series of investigations.
‘PROOF IN THE PUDDING’
“PG&E claims that they're a changing organization. Well, let's walk the talk,” District Attorney Mike Ramsey said.
Asked if the conviction of the PG&E corporation has meant as much as he’d hoped, Ramsey let out a sigh.
“I'd be just disingenuous to say that, ‘oh boy, we got our victory and all is good.’ No,” Ramsey said. “But I believe all is much better.”
The company has taken positive steps, Ramsey says. But he worries about how deep PG&E’s problem runs.
The company hasn’t gone a full year without sparking a big, destructive fire since 2016.
“That'll just be in the proof in the pudding as we see, come this November, quite frankly,” Ramsey said.
Weeks after that interview, the Mosquito Fire broke out in the foothills west of Lake Tahoe. PG&E announced this week the U.S. Forest Service seized a transmission pole from the origin point in the Tahoe National Forest.
The federal government is now investigating PG&E for possible criminal charges in the fire, which burned dozens of buildings.
“I think there's been a lot of enabling going on in Sacramento,” Noel said.
He worries PG&E won’t change without the state government forcing the company's leaders to take accountability.
Our investigations showed the legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom acted to protect PG&E from the consequences of starting fires.
“Unless things change, many more acres are going to be destroyed. Many more homes are going to be lost. And more importantly, many more deaths are going to occur,” Noel predicts.
“Paradise should have shocked the conscience of the state, of our governor. It should have shocked the conscience of all of PG&E's executives,” Bradley said. “And it didn't, and it won't.”
“We understand that we must fully acknowledge our past as we look to the future and build a safer energy company,” PG&E spokesperson Lynsey Paulo said in a written statement. “Today, PG&E is a different company with new leadership under Patti Poppe.”
Neither she nor Poppe answered when asked whether the CEO has personally reviewed the records from the grand jury charging the company with felonies before she took it over.
To many victims and survivors of PG&E disasters, the company’s attitude today shows why it should have lost its state monopoly powers long ago.
“This is so, so simple. It's such an easy problem to solve, in the grand scheme of things,” Bradley added. “It just takes a politician saying, 'We're going to hold them responsible. We're not going to bail them out.'”
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