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Court rejects PG&E-funded lawsuit to conceal details of Camp Fire crimes

A year and a half after PG&E pleaded guilty to 85 felonies for causing the Camp Fire and killing 84 people, we’re a step closer to being able to read the evidence.

SACRAMENTO, Calif — A California appeals court on Wednesday rejected a PG&E-funded lawsuit that concealed details of the company’s crimes in the 2018 Camp Fire. It's a step toward allowing the public to read the record of the case.

At issue is whether the public can read the 7,000-page transcript of the criminal grand jury in Butte County that charged PG&E, including the names of some 200 PG&E employees who appear in the documents. 

In a unanimous opinion rendered Wednesday, the Third District Court of Appeal decided the public can, writing “it is not a close question.”

Credit: AP
In this Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018 photo, residences leveled by the Camp Fire line a neighborhood in Paradise, Calif. Wildfires have destroyed nearly 50,000 homes in California alone in the last five years. While much attention is focused on managing overgrown forests, fire managers say it’s equally crucial to increase the fire resistance of homes and the area immediately around them, known as “defensible space.” (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

The justices ruled against PG&E workers who wanted their names blacked out of the documents.

If the ruling is not appealed to the state supreme court, the records can be made available to the public in 60 days.

“We are pleased with the decision,” Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said. “We feel that this is a victory for the First Amendment and the light of day.”

ABC10 made legal arguments for release of the documents in the case, joined by the Wall Street Journal.

Under California law, grand jury transcripts are supposed to be released to the public ten days after the case is completed, which would have been in June 2020.

Credit: Brandon Rittiman
Lead Camp Fire prosecutor Marc Noel (left) and Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey (right) pose with the 7,000-page transcript of the criminal case against PG&E for the 2018 Camp Fire. The records, which come from an investigatory grand jury that took testimony over the course of a year, remain under seal due to a court order in a lawsuit funded by PG&E in the wake of the Camp Fire convictions. PG&E's century-old Caribou-Palermo transmission line was allowed to wear down until it broke in a windstorm, resulting 85 felony convictions in the deadliest homicide ever committed by a corporation on U.S. soil.

“We are hopeful that any further delay will not occur,” Ramsey said.

PG&E pleaded guilty to all 85 criminal charges in the grand jury’s indictment: 84 felony counts of manslaughter and one felony arson count for sparking the Camp Fire through criminal negligence.

But the record of the PG&E case has been kept secret due to the lawsuit.

The names of the 22 PG&E workers who filed it were accidentally released by their attorneys. They were identified last year in an ABC10 story about the criminal records that have been kept secret.

Credit: ABC10
A still image from a November 2021 television report shows all 22 PG&E employees who sued for anonymity after being named in the criminal investigation of the 2018 Camp Fire. Many worked in roles that had no decision-making authority over the electrical business that sparked the Camp Fire. They mix of high and low-level employees, named in the case for many different reasons, and are among about 200 employees whose names appear in the 7,000-page grand jury record. The report named them because the lawsuit they filed, funded by PG&E, blocked the release of those records for more than a year. California law makes grand jury records public ten days after a case is finished, which in this case means the records should have come out in June 2020.

The Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento sealed the entire 7,000 page record while the suit has been pending for a year and a half.

The secrecy — and the fact that PG&E paid for the lawsuit — offends family members of the people killed in the fire.

“I would love to know the entire factors of what caused the fire that took my grandma,” said Steve Bradley, the grandson of Colleen Riggs, one of PG&E’s manslaughter victims. “But they don't want to release that to the public.”

Credit: ABC10
Retired firefighter Steve Bradley holds up a photograph of his grandmother, Ethel "Colleen" Riggs, who died in her house during the 2018 Camp Fire. Bradley tried to save her that day, but was blocked from being able to reach her house. He's advocating for transparency and justice in the case after PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter, the deadliest homicide ever committed by a corporation on U.S. soil.

PG&E has previously defended its funding of the lawsuit as a "wildfire related" expense.

The documents contain details of what PG&E knew, when PG&E knew it, and the ways that PG&E put profits over safety, according to the prosecutors.

The documents could prove helpful to new criminal cases already filed against PG&E for the Zogg and Kincade Fires. The prosecutors in those cases had to ask for permission to read the transcripts.

RELATED: PG&E charged with 4 homicides, environmental crimes for allegedly starting Zogg Fire

Credit: ABC10
This image from the arborist report in CAL FIRE's investigation of the deadly Zogg Fire shows the tree suspected of falling onto a PG&E power line. Investigators found the tree had 'obvious' safety problems and PG&E was 'reckless' not to remove it. PG&E has been charged with four felony manslaughter counts and other crimes for starting the Sept. 2020 fire in Shasta County.

The District Attorney’s office did agree to black out the names of some PG&E workers when the documents are released to the public, but only the names of local employees who could be at risk because they still live and work in the area where the fire burned.

Credit: CAL FIRE
PG&E workers lower the "smoking gun" in the Camp Fire criminal case: the broken C-hook that dropped the company's power line and sent sparks falling on the ground below. On November 14, 2018, PG&E workers collected evidence in a criminal investigation against the company for starting the 2018 Camp Fire. ABC10 obtained hundreds of photos and videos under state transparency laws. PG&E's century-old Caribou-Palermo transmission line was allowed to wear down until it broke in a windstorm, resulting 85 felony convictions in the deadliest homicide ever committed by a corporation on U.S. soil.

The appeals court ruled that was a reasonable way to decide who could be named and who could not, which means most of the approximately 200 PG&E employees named in the documents would not be redacted.

“The evidence showed that local PG&E employees had direct experience of harassment and violence from members of the community affected by the fire,” presiding Justice Vance Raye wrote in the opinion. “PG&E employees who lived outside the area did not have similar experiences.”

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 brittiman@abc10.com.

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