Back in April, while under siege for its coziness with the industries it regulated, the embattled state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) significantly increased a proposed penalty for Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) deadly 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion.
When the PUC shift was first floated in March, it was generally received favorably, but San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane asked the San Francisco Chronicle, “What, after all, does this do to revamp the PUC, PG&E and their relationship?”
The PUC has been pummeled since the release of thousands of e-mails last year that documented the overly close relationship between the agency and the utility before, during and after the blast that killed eight people and leveled a neighborhood.
Top officials left under pressure, and the U.S. Department of Justice and the state Attorney General’s office started investigations of the more egregious improprieties in an unfolding scandal that includes alleged judge shopping. The powerful president of the PUC board, Michael Peevey, did not seek a third term, as expected.
The PUC undertook its own review of the e-mails, and 80 e-mailers, and determined no one still working there had committed an offense deserving of suspension or firing. PUC Executive Director Timothy Sullivan wrote to employees (pdf) on May 27 that 54 individuals required no “corrective action” and the rest would be handled, because it is a personnel matter, without public comment.
Ed Howard, an expert in regulatory and administrative law at the University of San Diego law school’s Center for Public Interest Law, told the Chronicle there is no legal barrier to the agency being more forthcoming about the nature of its penalties. “This is a scandal of the first order,” he said. “The culture there is profoundly broken. They just don’t get how bad the problem is.”
The newspaper reported that the “corrective actions” were finger-wagging letters of criticism for “improper” and “unprofessional” e-mails. Some of the writers were warned about using inappropriate language, talking about personal subjects and striking an unprofessional tone. Some letters did not cite specific transgressions.
The newspaper quoted one letter made available to them: “We do not expect further action on this matter at this time, and we hope we put this behind us and move forward in a positive direction.”
That sentiment was echoed by Sullivan, who wrote, “I hope this difficult chapter in the life of the Commission is coming to a close. We have all learned a lot.”
One of the things they have learned is not to put incriminating information in e-mails and the executive director reminded employees of the recent “commission-wide training covering email communication.” It was the only teaching moment mentioned in the letter.