PG&E Caves to “Emotional” San Bruno “Nuts,” Will Release All 65,000 E-Mails

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) self-reported this week about a dozen more embarrassing, if not forbidden, back-channel e-mail communications with its state regulator, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), while announcing it would release in February all 65,000 that critics and parties to lawsuits have been clamoring for.

Although this week’s volume of e-mails was low, like the trickle of communications that preceded it in previous months, it packed a wallop. PG&E selected the e-mails based on the distinct possibility they indicate improper communication with their overseers. Federal and state law enforcement agencies are conducting investigations.

“Some of the emails that we are reporting today suggest clear violations” of PUC rules, PG&E Chief Executive Officer Anthony Earley said in a prepared release.

Demands for the e-mails began earlier in the year during a court proceeding over the deadly 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion. Around 7,000 e-mails were released with dribs and drabs to follow. What emerged seemed to highlight an overly cozy relationship that the law frowns upon.

This week’s haul includes an internal e-mail from then-PG&E Vice President Brian Cherry to fellow executives reflecting PUC President Michael Peevey’s assessments of the San Bruno mayor as “emotional” and the city manager as “nuts.”  Peevey is leaving at the end of the year after deciding not to pursue a third appointment by Governor Brown, and Cherry was fired.

Although e-mails regarding the San Bruno blast and the $1.4-billion penalty proposed by an administrative judge are at the heart of the scandal so far, conversations about unrelated subjects are also garnering attention. George Avalos at the Bay Area News Group reported that some of the new e-mails reference Governor Brown directly contacting two of the five PUC commissioners about a power plant in the Bay Area city of Oakley.

Peevey “reminded me how he and Governor Brown used every ounce of persuasion to get (former Commissioner Mark) Ferron to change his mind and vote for Oakley,” Cherry wrote. “Jerry’s direct plea was to Ferron was decisive.”

“It is rather unusual for the governor to be involved in this kind of proceeding,” Michael Asimow, a professor at Stanford Law School and an expert in administrative law, told Avalos. “The communications in proceedings before the PUC shouldn't include pressure from political actors such as the state Legislature or the governor.”    

The governor’s office did not respond to questions about the e-mail. “Generally we do not comment on triple hearsay,” spokesman Evan Westrup said.

The e-mails go back to 2010 and PG&E’s statement seems to warn of many past indiscretions. But that was then. This is now:

“We’re committed to doing the right thing and to interacting with our state regulator in a transparent and ethical manner that upholds both the letter and spirit of the law and the company’s own Code of Conduct at all times. Our customers expect no less. . . . We want to be clear—we have learned from this experience.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

PG&E Discloses 12 New Email Chains, Says It Will Release 65,000 Messages in February (by Julia Cheever, Bay City News)

San Bruno: PG&E to Release Emails; PUC President Calls City Official “Nuts” (by George Avalos, Bay Area News Group)

PG&E Discloses More Emails with State Regulators (by Ellen Knickmeyer, Associated Press)

PUC Leader Critical of San Bruno Officials, Email Shows (by Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times)

Countdown to 65,000: PG&E Dragging Out Scandal One E-Mail at a Time (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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