SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Pacific Gas and Electric Company had been off of probation only two full days when the company walked back into criminal court Friday morning.
A superior court judge in Sonoma County held a hearing Friday morning on PG&E’s alleged crimes in sparking the 2019 Kincade Fire, which include five felony charges and 28 misdemeanors.
PG&E admits it started the Kincade Fire, but denies criminal wrongdoing.
Friday’s hearing was to confirm that both sides are ready for preliminary hearings, set to begin with court dates on Feb. 8 and 9.
PG&E’s preliminary hearing is expected to last as long as a complex trial; with 15 days of court planned for witnesses, evidence, and argument.
The purpose of preliminary hearings under California law is for the judge to, “decide if there is enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime to make the defendant have to appear for a trial.”
The proceedings will be similar to a trial, but the burden of proof is less stringent. Prosecutors need to convince the judge that there is probable cause that PG&E committed the alleged crimes.
Guilty verdicts would require proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
PG&E WAS ON PROBATION DURING THE ALLEGED CRIMES, GOT OFF PROBATION ANYWAY
The charges for the Kincade Fire, along with another criminal case in Shasta County that includes four felony counts of involuntary manslaughter in the 2020 Zogg Fire, led PG&E’s federal probation officer to file formal violations against the company last November.
In 2017, PG&E was given the federal maximum of five years probation after a jury convicted the company of six felonies connected to the deadly San Bruno gas explosion.
Prison time wasn’t an option because the criminal charges were against the corporation itself, not any of its officers or employees.
PG&E violated the probation multiple times. The first rule of probation forbid PG&E to commit another crime, yet PG&E pleaded guilty in June 2020 to 85 felonies in the deadly 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise.
84 of the felony counts were for involuntary manslaughter, making the case the deadliest homicide committed by a corporation in the United States.
Disaster survivors called late last year for PG&E’s probation to be extended and U.S. District Judge William Alsup offered to consider doing so on Jan. 3, despite the fact that such a move would be on untested legal grounds.
But federal prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco declined the judge’s invitation.
The U.S. Attorney's office, led by Stephanie Hinds, did not respond to ABC10's request to comment on that decision, but told the judge in court documents that, "the state courts are the proper forum” for the alleged crimes in the Zogg and Kincade Fires.
“Shame on them,” said Sue Bullis, whose son, husband, and mother-in-law all died in the San Bruno disaster. “It’s going to take years for those [court cases] to come to a judgment. It did for us. ”
On probation, the judge had gone so far as to ban PG&E from paying shareholder dividends.
Off probation, it will return to trying to restore those dividends, aided by Gov. Gavin Newsom's policies.
ABC10's investigation revealed that the governor's office protected PG&E from the financial consequences of its crimes and bailed the company out of the bankruptcy it declared while state regulators helped the company avoid meaningful accountability.
PG&E donated $208,000 toward Newsom's campaign for governor while the company was a felon on probation.
Newsom called it a "strange question" when ABC10 asked in 2019 whether it was right for him to accept money from a corporate felon and then set policy on the company's future.
‘PG&E HAS GONE ON A CRIME SPREE’
PG&E previously attempted to have many of the Kincade Fire charges tossed out, arguing it couldn't be held criminally liable for smoke emissions and the health damage they caused.
The judge ruled against PG&E and all of the Kincade Fire charges are still pending.
Even so, PG&E has used the same legal maneuver, known as a demurrer, to delay another pending criminal case in the 2020 Zogg Fire being prosecuted by Shasta County.
The investigation there is ongoing, with the district attorney saying that she hasn’t ruled out the possibility that individuals could be arrested and charged, opening the possibility that prison time could be on the table for the first time in an alleged PG&E crime.
In the final days of PG&E’s probation, Judge Alsup made it clear that the court had “failed” to rehabilitate PG&E.
“PG&E has gone on a crime spree and will emerge from probation as a continuing menace to California,” the judge wrote.
The company is also named as the cause of the massive 2021 Dixie Fire, which has been referred to prosecutors who are investigating.
In a statement, PG&E spokesperson James Noonan claimed that the company had become “fundamentally safer” during the probation term.
Like many disaster survivors, Sue Bullis disagrees.
“They continue to show a lack of, quite frankly, being a human being; a general concern for peoples’ well being that they’re serving,” Bullis said.
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.