July 31, 2014

EDITORIAL: Emails show California PUC in cozy friendship with PG&E

We've all heard the warnings: The "e" in email stands for evidence. Don't put anything into email that you expect to remain private.

We've all heard the warnings: The "e" in email stands for evidence. Don't put anything into email that you expect to remain private.

Apparently, the memo never found its way to the California Public Utilities Commission, Commission President Michael R. Peevey, or certain executives at Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

The city of San Bruno is seeking to persuade the commission to impose a $2.45 billion penalty on PG&E for the 2010 gas explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

As part of that effort, San Bruno city officials sued to compel the commission to hand over emails showing the relationship between the regulator and PG&E, the utility it's supposed to regulate. The result: 7,000 emails.

The vast majority of them are mundane. But San Bruno's outside communications consultant created a "highlight reel" of a few dozen choice emails.

There is the one from April 2, in which Peevey sent a note to Brian K. Cherry, who oversees governmental relations for PG&E, critiquing the company's public relations strategy.

PG&E had issued a news release in March announcing that it expected to be indicted on federal charges related to its failure to prevent the deadly 2010 explosion. Then, on April 1, PG&E announced it had been indicted.

"PG&E's decision to issue a press release last week anticipating all this only meant that the public got to read two big stories rather than one. I think this was inept," Peevey said.

Evidently, PG&E's biggest problem is bad press.

Then there was the April 2013 exchange in which Peevey's chief of staff, Carol A. Brown, suggested to PG&E executive Laura Doll that PG&E brush off questions from the administrative law judge overseeing the PG&E investigation.

Send a "sweet note" saying the questions were moot, Brown wrote, and "wait for them to throw a fit." Alternatively, Brown said, "answer any simple question you can and then object to the others."

PG&E President Chris Johns promised a full review of the emails. But as San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said earlier this week, the emails show the cozy relationship between the commission and the utility.

Far worse than some embarrassing emails is that nearly four years after the explosion, the commission has failed to conclude its proceeding against PG&E.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature need to insist that the commission act. They also need to undertake an overdue overhaul of the commission.

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