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PG&E's manslaughter punishment 'not perfect justice'

Butte County prosecutors say they tried to put someone in prison for the 84 deaths in the 2018 Camp Fire, but could only make charges stick against the company.

BUTTE COUNTY, Calif — PG&E became the first major utility in American history to be convicted of homicide on Tuesday as the company's soon-to-be-former CEO Bill Johnson pleaded guilty to 84 counts of felony manslaughter.

PG&E killed its 84 victims by starting the 2018 Camp Fire through criminal negligence, and the punishment doesn't fit the crime, according to the prosecutor.

“It’s a modicum of justice. It’s not perfect justice. We don’t have a perfect system,” said Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who called on state lawmakers to change criminal laws to impose heftier punishment on corporations that commit crimes.

Under United States and California law, a corporation is to be treated the same as a person. In reality, that works out really well for corporations. In this case, the crimes happened because the PG&E corporation put profits over the safety of its customers.

“It became clear that profit was a driving force,” Ramsey said.

No one will go to prison for the manslaughter of these 84 people because no people at PG&E were ever charged. The crimes all go on the company’s rap sheet.

RELATED: PG&E pleads guilty to charges stemming from 2018's Camp Fire | Update

“We didn’t get individuals,” said lead prosecutor Marc Noel. “The next time PGE does this, we’ve laid the foundation to put people in prison. We got all the justice we possibly could.”

Johnson was the one to plead guilty to each felony count, but he won't be the one serving time for the 84 counts of felony manslaughter. Nobody will.

After Johnson left the courtroom Tuesday, he told ABC10 that these next few days of court, when victims of the deadly fire will stand to read what will likely be emotional statements, are about honoring those who died and the survivors left behind to rebuild.

"This is about the victims and paying respect and honor and paying attention and admitting we didn't do everything right," Johnson said. "And we're expecting tomorrow to be powerful as people getting up tell their stories. Stories is not a good word, but I don't have a better word what happened to them."

But all the justice they could get for PG&E fell far short of the consequences a human being would face for killing the same 84 people through criminally negligent behavior.

A person could face more than a century in prison time and be financially ruined.

But PG&E can’t go to prison. What’s more it will be sentenced to pay the exact same fine that a human criminal would for the manslaughters: a little more than $3.4 million, which for a multibillion dollar corporation amounts to something more akin to a speeding ticket.

All the same, PG&E tried to pay that modest fine out of a fund set up for wildfire victims. (The company later backed off of this plan.)

A yearlong secret grand jury investigation found that from the 1980’s to today, PG&E systematically cut back on its efforts to inspect high tension lines like the one that sparked the Camp Fire in 2018.

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An old, worn-down metal hook snapped in the wind on November 8, 2018, allowing a PG&E high tension line to slap into the side of its metal tower, showering the ground below in embers.

The embers crested a nearby ridge and quickly began to shower the whole Paradise area in “softball-sized” embers.

The investigation found that PG&E left a hook out in the windy Feather River Canyon for about a hundred years. It would have cost 22 cents back then, Rasey said. Today it’d cost about $13.

PG&E never found it and replaced it, the report found, because all of the PG&E inspectors who’d visited it in the past decade were “inexperienced, untrained and unqualified.”

Ramsey added that some were “so poorly trained they didn’t know what they were looking at.”

About 40 of the next of kin of PG&E’s victims plan to give victim impact statements over the next four days.

Meantime, PG&E is also working to exit bankruptcy with help from Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state government.

If the deal goes through, the victims of PG&E’s wildfires will effectively become major shareholders. Other PG&E’s creditors will be paid cash in that deal. The fire victims will be paid half in cash and half in stock to be held and sold by a trust.

The people who’ve already had their lives burned by PG&E could get burned financially if the company sparks even more fires.

PG&E said it’s deeply sorry and committed to change. It said the same thing after blowing up a neighborhood in San Bruno. Eight years later, PG&E sparked the deadliest wildfire in California history.

The criminal court wasn’t the only place where PG&E faced potential penalties. The California Public Utilities Commission, appointed by the governor, has regulatory authority over PG&E.

The CPUC did not revoke PG&E’s license to run a state-granted monopoly. In fact, the commissioners waived payment of PG&E’s $200 million fine for the violations behind the Camp Fire — to help it get out of bankruptcy.

Follow the conversation on Facebook with Brandon Rittiman.

ABC10's Ananda Rochita contributed to this reporting.

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