SANTA ROSA, Calif. — A judge in Sonoma County approved more time Friday for settlement negotiations, delaying hearings in the criminal case against PG&E for the 2019 Kincade Fire.
Despite voicing concerns about the length of the delay during an active preliminary hearing, Judge Mark Urioste granted the pause requested by both sides.
Sonoma County prosecutors and PG&E’s attorneys reported “making progress” on a deal they first announced was in the works earlier this week, asking until Mar. 14.
Neither side has said whether PG&E would plead guilty to any crimes in the deal being negotiated, a fact that leaves advocates for safety and accountability concerned.
Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch filed 33 criminal charges against PG&E, including reckless arson and environmental crimes for causing smoke pollution.
No one burned to death in the 2019 Kincade Fire but there were close calls.
Prosecutors filed enhancements to felony charges that include serious injuries to firefighters.
The Kincade Fire destroyed more than 100 homes during a massive series of October windstorms in 2019, when PG&E had intentionally switched off power to millions of Californians in the name of preventing fires.
The high-voltage transmission line that sparked the Kincade Fire was left on.
PG&E admits to sparking the fire, but denies it committed any crimes.
CIVIL OR CRIMINAL?
PG&E has attempted to pay money to avoid criminal prosecution before.
After it sparked the 2018 Camp Fire, PG&E tried to avoid criminal prosecution by offering “large” monetary settlements under civil laws instead, according to Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey.
WATCH (20 min): PG&E: Politics and crime | A FIRE - POWER - MONEY SPECIAL
He refused the offers, arguing that it was important to label the company’s criminal acts as the crimes they were.
“You are a killer corporation,” Ramsey said in an interview after PG&E was convicted. “Do you understand that?”
In 2020, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter, the deadliest homicide ever committed by a corporation in the United States.
The company was convicted of criminal negligence, which amounts to an admission that the company acted in a way a reasonable person would know could cause injury and death.
It’s similar to the kind of criminality in drunk driving fatalities, only prosecutors contend PG&E’s actions were worse because they involved “greedy and selfish” motives of maximizing profits.
Advocates for holding PG&E accountable say the Kincade Fire, which was sparked in a manner similar to the Camp Fire, should also result in a criminal conviction for similar reasons.
“This is not a matter that should be settled unless it includes guilty pleas,” said Attorney Mike Aguirre, who previously worked as a prosecutor and the city attorney for San Diego.
“The best way to do the most good for the most people is to enforce the law, not to become part of the whole civil settlement debacle.”
All of PG&E’s victims in the Camp Fire, along with other fires the company caused in 2015 and 2017, are still waiting on compensation from PG&E.
The company settled in bankruptcy court by creating a trust fund that was paid half in shares of PG&E stock. The shares have never been worth the $6.75 billion fire survivors were told to expect.
A recently-introduced bill in the state legislature would declare an intent to make those victims whole, but does not actually contain a plan to make that happen.
KINCADE EVIDENCE NOT BEING RELEASED TO THE PUBLIC
During the first days of preliminary hearings for the Kincade Fire, Cal Fire arson Investigator Gary Uboldi walked the court through evidence showing how PG&E’s power line sparked it.
He pointed to photographs showing a broken PG&E power cable and scorch marks that it left on parts of the metal tower that it fell into after snapping apart while it was energized.
In a scene reminiscent of the 2019 Camp Fire, Uboldi said PG&E workers were allowed into the crime scene to help collect evidence from the power line that started the Kincade Fire.
In both fire investigations, PG&E's workers were used due to a lack of anyone else qualified and willing to do the work on high-voltage lines.
Uboldi testified that on the night of the fire, he saw large strings of ceramic insulators connected to the cables swinging “almost perpendicular” in the wind.
The power cables on one side of those insulators had been removed when a nearby geothermal power plant shut down years earlier.
Judge Urioiste’s staff declined to provide copies or allow ABC10 to record images of any of the photographs that were displayed in open court.
The judge had denied requests for news cameras to record on the days when photographs were shown.
Keeping the images from public view has the effect of “allowing them to sweep [the Kincade Fire] under the rug,” Aguirre argued.
Ahead of Friday's hearing, Urioste denied requests from news outlets to open up the proceedings by providing a live online feed or allowing video or audio to be recorded in court.
He granted a request for a newspaper photographer, who captured images of the lawyers in attendance for the very short hearing Friday. No evidence was shown.
OTHER WILDFIRE CASES HANG IN THE BALANCE
The Kincade Fire is one of several that has PG&E facing criminal trouble right now.
Prosecutors in Shasta County filed charges that include four felony counts of involuntary manslaughter against PG&E for the 2020 Zogg Fire.
Butte and several of its neighboring counties also launched a criminal investigation of PG&E because of the massive 2021 Dixie Fire.
That investigation is being led by the same prosecutors who successfully convicted PG&E of sparking the deadly Camp Fire.
Despite those convictions, PG&E was allowed last month to exit federal probation for yet more crimes the company committed in the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion.
Federal prosecutors declined to take U.S. District Judge William Alsup up on his offer to consider extending or ordering a do-over of PG&E's probation before the maximum five-year sentence expired.
He’s one of the multiple judges who’ve told PG&E it deserves to be in prison for its crimes.
Despite the fictional legal concept that treats them as people, corporations can’t go to prison.
Prosecutors have described PG&E’s offenses as “crime by committee,” preventing them from being able to hold individual officers or employees of the utility criminally responsible.
In the Kincade Fire hearings, before PG&E’s lawyers and the prosecutors spoke in the Sonoma County courtroom, they had to wait for Judge Urioste to read a real-life human offender the terms of his probation sentence.
Among the requirements, Urioste warned the new convict that he’s required to obey all laws.
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 email@example.com.