CALIFORNIA, USA — Ruling in favor of ABC10, the California Supreme Court this week ordered the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to explain in court why it shouldn't have to release emails between its top official and key staffers in Gov. Gavin Newsom's office.
The messages cover a time when the CPUC and the Newsom administration crafted and executed a complex plan to bail out the PG&E Corporation from the financial consequences of the company's crimes.
PG&E pleaded guilty to 85 felonies, including 84 manslaughter counts, for sparking the 2018 Camp Fire through criminally reckless behavior.
The state government responded by helping to prop up PG&E's finances so it could exit the bankruptcy protection it filed for in the wake of those crimes. The CPUC and Newsom both approved the company's bankruptcy plan, which has left the company's victims to deal with delayed and reduced payments.
The bankruptcy plan involved certifying PG&E as an officially safe power company under a new law drafted by private attorneys working for Newsom's office.
It also involved the CPUC waiving a $200 million fine for the PG&E's laundry list of violations of state safety rules and laws.
ABC10 sought to see what CPUC President Marybel Batjer and four key Newsom staffers said to one another because under California's constitution the CPUC is supposed to operate independently.
A top official turned whistleblower told ABC10 the CPUC wasn't independent.
"We do whatever the governor tells us to do, period," former CPUC executive director Alice Stebbins told ABC10.
The messages in question could reveal details of the relationship between the agency and the governor's office, including whether it took direction on decisions that affected PG&E's fate.
"It's not supposed to, that's the point," said Steve Zansberg, a first amendment attorney representing ABC10 in the case.
The CPUC decided to keep the messages secret and ABC10 immediately appealed to the agency.
ABC10 sued to enforce state transparency laws after six months of inaction by CPUC, but a lower appeals court ruled the agency could take all the time it wanted to consider our appeal.
The California Public Records Act sets a 24-day time limit for agencies to decide whether they intend to release such records.
The state Supreme Court sided with ABC10, ruling that the station's lawsuit to seek the records could go forward.
"What the Supreme Court rejected was the PUC position that it could ignore your appeal forever and you'd never have your day in court," Zansberg said.
The case, filed as "Rittiman v. Public Utilities Commission," will go back to California's First District Court of Appeal with instructions to reverse the lower court's decision.
The CPUC will have 30 days to explain why it shouldn't be forced to turn the records over.
If the case drags into next year, CPUC President Batjer will be out of office. She recently announced plans to resign at the end of the year after filing to receive a Senate confirmation hearing for her term in office.
ABC10's position in the records case is being supported by the First Amendment Coalition, the Associated Press, and the Center for Investigative reporting.
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.