SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In its court appearance on Tuesday, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter for a wildfire that wiped out the town of Paradise.
The nation’s largest utility took responsibility for the death and destruction caused by its history of neglect and greed. PG&E CEO Bill Johnson acknowledged that the fire that destroyed Paradise was ignited by PG&E's rickety electrical grid and apologized to the victims.
PG&E CEO Bill Johnson issued the following statement in court regarding the company’s guilty plea:
“I am here today on behalf of the 23,000 men and women of PG&E, to accept responsibility for the fire here that took so many lives and changed these communities forever.
I have heard the pain and the anguish of victims as they’ve described the loss they continue to endure, and the wounds that can’t be healed. No words from me could ever reduce the magnitude of such devastation or do anything to repair the damage. But I hope that the actions we are taking here today will help bring some measure of peace.
Our equipment started the fire that destroyed the towns of Paradise and Concow and severely burned Magalia and other parts of Butte County. That fire took the lives of 85 people. Thousands lost their homes and businesses, and many others were forced to evacuate under horrific circumstances.
I wish there were some way to take back what happened or take away the pain of those who’ve suffered. But I know there’s not.
What I can say is this: First, PG&E will never forget the Camp Fire and all that it took from this region. We remain deeply, deeply sorry for the terrible devastation we have caused.
Second, since the Camp Fire, we have worked side-by-side with Butte County residents and public officials to help the Paradise region recover and rebuild. That work continues today, and we are doing everything we can to make things right.
Third, we are working hard to get the victims compensated. With our Plan of Reorganization on track to be approved by June 30, their wait may finally be nearing an end. In fact, the Bankruptcy Court has concluded confirmation hearings regarding our Plan. This should be one of the final steps toward paying the $25.5 billion in settlements we’ve reached with wildfire victims, Butte County agencies and others.
Finally, I want to reiterate to the Court and all of the people of the Paradise region that the lessons PG&E learned from the Camp Fire are being taken to heart and are driving comprehensive changes currently underway at PG&E.
We are intently focused on reducing the risk of wildfire in our communities. We have improved our inspection and operational protocols. We are hardening our energy system and making it more resilient. We have incorporated advanced technology to better predict and detect extreme weather conditions. All of this, and more, is being done to help make sure the tragedy that occurred here never happens again, in any of the communities we serve.
In closing, I want to reiterate that on behalf of PG&E, I apologize for the pain we have caused. We know we cannot replace all that the fire destroyed. We do hope that by pleading guilty and accepting accountability, by compensating victims and supporting rebuilding efforts, and by making significant, lasting changes in the way we operate, we can honor those who were lost and help this community move forward.
Your Honor, we make this plea with sadness and regret—and with eyes open to what happened, and to what we must do to make things right.”
Corporations are supposed to be treated like people under American law, but that’s not what will happen to PG&E this week.
The California power company plans to plead guilty to 84 felony counts of manslaughter for the people that were killed during the 2018 Camp Fire in a Butte County court.
Similar charges could put a human being behind bars for more than a century. That will not happen under the plea agreement because the charges are against PG&E and not any individual people at PG&E. No one will go to jail. PG&E will not lose its state license to run its monopoly.
As the unprecedented criminal case makes its way through a courtroom in Chico this week, the organs of California's state government are working to help prop up PG&E's books so that it can resume running its energy empire. Gov. Gavin Newsom's (D-California) administration and his appointees on the California Public Utilities Commission [CPUC] are working to help PG&E exit Chapter 11 bankruptcy by the end of June so that it can access a state wildfire fund to help pay for damages if it sparks another fire. Recently, the CPUC waived a $200 million fine for PG&E's Camp Fire violations to help the company exit bankruptcy.
PG&E was already a convicted felon on probation when state lawmakers and the governor passed AB-1054, allowing PG&E to access a multibillion dollar fund to cover damages in future wildfires that PG&E and other for-profit utilities might spark.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN COURT
The court sessions will stretch approximately four days and resemble a homicide trial that's skipped right to the sentencing phase. On Tuesday, all 85 charges against PG&E will be read aloud at length, including the names of each of PG&E's 84 homicide victims.
Criminal law allows victims the opportunity to be heard by the judge before a convict is sentenced. About 40 people related to the victims of the Camp Fire plan to give victim impact statements. From a legal standpoint, the idea behind this process is to allow the judge the opportunity to hear how a crime affected people before sentencing the criminal to a punishment.
In this case, the punishment is not a surprise because PG&E already negotiated its punishment as part of a plea deal. The company will pay the maximum fine for manslaughter of about $3.5 million plus another $500,000 for the DA's investigative costs.
At first, PG&E tried to pay its criminal fine out of a wildfire victims fund, but reversed course after public pressure.
GUILTY TO 85 NEW FELONIES
Eighty four of the 85 counts PG&E will plead guilty to are a homicide: felony manslaughter, which California law defines as the "unlawful killing of a human being without malice." The company was quick to point out to members of the media that the charges are "involuntary" manslaughter. That's because "voluntary" manslaughter covers killings that have a crime-of-passion element to them.
PG&E is being charged with criminal negligence of its duty to run a safe power grid, in large part because investigators reported evidence that PG&E was well aware of the problem that sparked the Camp Fire, had fixed the exact same issue before, and failed to keep track of it.
The number of manslaughter charges differs from the widely-reported official death toll of 85 people in the fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise and entire neighborhoods in nearby Concow and Magalia. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said that's because evidence showed one of the 85 people took their own life during California's most destructive wildfire ever.
PG&E also agreed to plead guilty to one felony count of illegally starting a fire with criminal enhancements for injuring a firefighter, the public, and destroying buildings.
The fire destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings in Butte County, including about 14,000 family homes.