SANTA CLARA, Calif. — With PG&E now guilty of the biggest corporate manslaughter case in U.S. history, one of the company’s former regulators says she’s troubled by what she sees as continued criminal thinking by the people who run the nation’s largest electric utility.
“The way that they behave makes no rational sense for people who are supposed to know how to run an electric utility,” said Santa Clara University law professor Catehrine Sandoval. “This is why I have come to believe and be very concerned that they continue to engage in criminal thinking.”
Sandoval, who served as a state public utilities commissioner from 2011-2016, made the comments in a lengthy interview for the ongoing ABC10 Originals documentary series FIRE - POWER - MONEY. PG&E has declined repeated requests to be interviewed for the series.
This summer, PG&E was convicted of the largest corporate homicide case in U.S. history, pleading guilty as charged to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and one more felony for illegally sparking the fire through reckless, criminally negligent maintenance of its power grid.
Prosecutors say a nearly 100-year-old hook was left to sit in the wind-prone Feather River Canyon until it wore down and snapped, allowing a high tension line to hit the metal tower holding it in the air.
The resulting sparks fell to the ground below and started the Camp Fire in the early morning hours of November 8, 2018. The town of Paradise would be destroyed that day as gale-force winds battered the area in falling embers.
“When you look at their repeated failures, it's not about a hook,” Sandoval said. Rather, she said that PG&E’s history of causing an average of about 12 deaths per year since 2010 has to do with why PG&E didn’t find and replace the hook before it broke:
Sandoval: “They're hiding problems.”
ABC10: “From themselves and others?”
Sandoval: “Yes. I think that that is the root of their problem.”
Among the many concerns she has with PG&E’s behavior since that crime, Sandoval points to PG&E’s repeated resistance to plans that would make the company keep more detailed records of its safety work.
For instance, PG&E would not admit that the hook was nearly a century old, but did admit to a federal judge that it doesn’t actually know how old it was.
But when Federal Judge William Alsup pushed PG&E to improve the safety records it keeps on its equipment by identifying the age of parts like that hook, PG&E pushed back by arguing that it would be “enormously expensive and time-consuming” and that it “would not further public safety or PG&E’s rehabilitation and compliance with state laws.”
Sandoval called this “messed up thinking.” She’s argued to Alsup that PG&E’s executives should be mandated to take classes on preventing criminal thinking, as part of the company’s ongoing criminal probation for the six felonies on its record for the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion.
“The way that they behave makes no rational sense for people who are supposed to know how to operate an electric utility,” said Sandoval, pointing out that future disasters will not only be bad for Californians but also bad for PG&E’s shareholders.
Alsup’s court supervision in that case ends in January 2022, but the judge is considering further action against PG&E because the company is under a new homicide investigation, suspected of causing the Zogg Fire, which killed four people in Shasta County in September.
Like PG&E, Gov. Gavin Newsom has declined to be interviewed for ABC10’s series. The governor has claimed that PG&E will be “reimagined.”
“[PG&E has] substantially improved upon their previous efforts but they’re not even near where we expect they will be in a number of years,” he said at a news conference when asked why PG&E should retain control of its fire safety blackouts after falling under criminal investigation for the Zogg Fire.
Sandoval said she does not see the company reimagining or even substantially restructuring itself as PG&E emerges from bankruptcy.
“They're in the process of replacing their CEO and they've replaced most of their board members and they've restructured nothing,” Sandoval said. “It’s like we redid the paint job on the Boeing Max.”