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PG&E’s criminal hearings paused, Kincade Fire deal in works

PG&E faces 33 criminal charges for the 2019 wildfire, but could be close to settling the charges with the Sonoma County District Attorney.

SAN FRANCISCO — Lawyers for PG&E and Sonoma County prosecutors are close to reaching a deal in a criminal case revolving around the 2019 Kincade Fire, both sides told a judge Tuesday.

As the scheduled 15-day preliminary hearing in the case was set to resume Tuesday, lawyers asked the judge to pause the hearings, pending negotiation.

“We’re hopeful that a resolution may be obtained,” Matt Henning, Deputy District Attorney for Sonoma County, said, declining to elaborate further after exiting the courtroom.

PG&E has already been convicted of 91 felonies and hundreds of misdemeanors for previous connections to deadly events, including pleading guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter for the 2018 Paradise Fire. 

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The company currently faces 33 criminal charges in the Kincade Fire. PG&E has been charged with reckless arson for starting the fire, which Cal Fire determined was sparked by flailing parts on a PG&E transmission tower in the Geysers geothermal power plant complex. The company also faces felonies and misdemeanors for the smoke pollution.

Earlier this month, the court heard from a Cal Fire investigator who described watching parts of the power line flap untethered in the breeze when he located the fire’s origin.

“It was clear to me there wasn’t just a smoking gun, there was an arsenal of smoking guns in this case,” Will Abrams, a survivor of the 2017 Tubbs Fire who has advocated for stricter safety measures against PG&E, said.

Abrams said he is upset at news of a potential plea deal or settlement. He wants to see all the evidence brought out.

“It needs to go to trial and it needs to be more than about the money,” Abrams said. “If we keep [settling PG&E’s legal cases] we’ll keep having more fires, PG&E won’t be held to account, and we won’t have a change in course.”

Despite these pending criminal charges and more in Shasta County — which include four counts of involuntary manslaughter in the 2020 Zogg Fire — PG&E was allowed to exit federal criminal probation last month. US District Judge William Alsup urged local prosecutors to pursue the charges and seek to put PG&E back under probation supervision as punishment.

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At the time, Alsup said he “tried hard to rehabilitate PG&E,” but as PG&E’s supervising judge he “must acknowledge failure.”

"In these five years, PG&E has gone on a crime spree and will emerge from probation as a continuing menace to California,” Alsup added.

PG&E began serving federal probation in 2017 for its crimes in the deadly San Bruno gas explosion. Federal law limits probation to five years. With the encouragement of fire survivors, Alsup offered to consider an attempt to extend PG&E’s time on probation. Federal prosecutors declined to ask for the extension.

While on probation, PG&E equipment sparked multiple deadly fires in 2017. The company has admitted to sparking the 2019 Kincade Fire, but not to committing a crime. The fire started as PG&E blacked out power to millions of customers during powerful October windstorms, but the power line in question was not among those shut off.

Court is scheduled again for Monday, Feb. 28 in Sonoma County, to either update Judge Mark Urioste on the potential settlement, or to resume the preliminary hearing. The judge has not yet responded to a request from multiple media outlets to make public the evidence that has been introduced so far in the hearings.

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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