Southern California Edison (SCE) characterizes new documents released this week as records of “procedural” contacts between the utility and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) administrative law judge who signed off on the controversial $4.7-billion San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) settlement.
Critics call them smoking guns that establish improper behavior by Judge Melanie M. Darling. “The CPUC should be removed from making any decision about the [San Onofre plant] settlement,” attorney Mark Aguirre told the San Diego Reader. “This judge should disqualify herself; she should leave the CPUC after thoroughly disgracing herself and other administrative law judges.”
Aguirre may have been a bit peeved because a year ago, the San Diego lawyer was verbally smacked down at a PUC meeting by then-Commission President Michael Peevey for asking if there was a pre-settlement backroom deal with Edison. “I’m not here to answer your goddamned questions,” Peevey told Aguirre. “Now shut up! Shut up!”
Turns out, Aguirre was right. Peevey had met with a top Edison executive in Warsaw, Poland, where they discussed a framework for settlement. That 2013 meeting became known when Edison was compelled to release hundreds of e-mails that revealed an all-too-cozy relationship between the utility and its regulator, the PUC. It is now the subject of federal and state criminal investigations.
Judge Darling issued a 49-page ruling (pdf) in August that said Edison illegally used backchannel communications to discuss public matters with the PUC and violated regulations at least 10 times. The e-mails also revealed communications between the judge and Edison that critics thought suspicious but showed Darling specifically calling them contacts over procedural issues.
Judge Darling had also given Aguirre a hard time in hearings when he argued for tossing the agreement, which saddled ratepayers with 70% of the cost for the failed nuclear plant. San Onofre closed in January 2012 after a small leak of radioactive steam was discovered. Subsequent testing found hundreds of eroded steam tubes, damaged by vibration caused by new steam generators.
Edison blamed manufacturer Mitsubishi, which blamed computer problems and bad math for the misdesigned equipment. There is evidence that both knew the design was problematic.
The new documents released this week include 16 new e-mails and four pages of notes written by Edison executive Russ Worden. They were not included in the documents released by Judge Darling last August.
Worden wrote in June 2014 to co-workers, “Yesterday, Judge Darling called me to discuss plans for the SONGS meeting on Monday in Costa Mesa. She went out of her way to compliment SCE on our outreach and media publicity to notify outlets about the meeting. She said, ‘I like your plan of action.’”
The judge asked Worden if the deal needed to be reopened, as critics were demanding, and he “responded that, to his understanding, SCE did not believe the record needed to be reopened.”