Countdown to 65,000: PG&E Dragging Out Scandal One E-Mail at a Time

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The city of San Bruno on Monday joined an earlier plea from The Utility Reform Network (TURN) that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. release the 65,000 back-channel e-mails that passed between them and their regulator, California’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC), in an overly cozy relationship that some have called collusion.

San Bruno formally asked the PUC to appoint a special master to review the 65,000 e-mails at PG&E’s expense, separating normal business communications and confidential material from inappropriate exchanges.

An earlier release of 7,000 e-mails related to the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, which killed eight people and leveled a neighborhood, turned up some damning info about judge shopping and strategizing between the two. But the PUC refused to make public the rest, prompting critics to warn that the selective release of e-mails by PG&E might be self-serving.   

One of those e-mails was begrudgingly released this week after Administrative Law Judge Amy Yip-Kikugawa pried it loose, and it cast one of the PUC’s own board members in a bad light.

An internal January 14 memo from then-PG&E Vice President Brian Cherry outlined his understanding of Commissioner Mike Florio’s commitment to helping shape a decision in a $1.3 billion rate case that would please the utility. Cherry wrote that Florio offered to help Commissioner Carla J. Peterman write her decision or, failing that, conjure up an alternative ruling for the commission’s consideration.

Florio said the e-mail “does not accurately reflect my own recollection of that same conversation.”   

Florio, who was a senior attorney for TURN before being appointed to the board by Governor Brown in 2011, has had to recuse himself from proceedings involving PG&E because of his prominence in earlier e-mails. He was joined on the sidelines by Commission President Michael Peevey, who opted not to seek a third term and is leaving this month.  

Florio apologized in October for “some very serious mistakes” when it was revealed he exchanged e-mails with Cherry condemning the choice of administrative judges to hear the billion-dollar rate case. He wrote Cherry, “If I were you I would bump him—you really can’t do any worse! Even a brand new ALJ would at least work hard and try—you’ll get neither from him. . . . Keep me posted and I’ll do what I can on this end.”

PG&E eventually got its preferred judge.

Florio said he didn’t realize there was a policy against back-channel communications and it was a one-time thing. He apologized to the judge. “I want to assure everyone that such communications are something that I have not engaged in before and certainly will never do so again,” he said in October.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

CPUC Commissioner Tied to E-Mail Saying He’d Help PG&E (by Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle)

More Allegations of Improper Utility Contacts at the PUC (by Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times)

Second CPUC Commissioner Recuses on PG&E (by Scott Morris, Bay City News)

PUC Fines PG&E $1 Million for Inappropriate E-Mail Exchanges—with PUC (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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