San Bruno mayor wants PUC’s Florio out

San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane on Thursday called for the resignation or removal of California Public Utilities Commission member Mike Florio in light of recently disclosed emails that Ruane claims show an “inappropriate and possibly corrupt” relationship between PG&E and the PUC.

Ruane alleged at a news conference the messages show “calculated attempts” by PG&E executives to “manipulate Florio to serve their needs.

He urged Gov. Jerry Brown, who appointed Florio to the five-member commission in 2011, to remove him if he does not resign.

Florio denied the allegations in a statement saying:

“I have consistently acted independently in representing the public. … I should have been less candid with PG&E. But I have never subordinated the interest of PG&E’s customers, the people of San Bruno, or the public at large. … These allegations are tired, unfounded, and a distraction from the important work of the CPUC.”

Florio called the allegations “a new low” on the part of San Bruno.

Brown’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The newly disclosed messages are internal communications between 2011 and 2014 among PG&E executives, three of whom were fired last year.

They are in addition to tens of thousands of previously released PG&E emails. The messages previously made public include several dozen internal and external PG&E emails disclosed in 2014 and 65,000 messages between PG&E and PUC officials that were released in January at the order of a commission administrative law judge.

San Bruno and other groups claim some of the messages show illegal or inappropriate private communications, known as ex parte communications, between the utility and its regulators.

Probes of the utility’s emails grew out of underlying proceedings in which the commission investigated a fatal pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010.

Eight people died and 66 were injured in the explosion and ensuing fire. The blast was caused by a rupture in a defectively welded and incorrectly documented PG&E natural gas transmission pipeline.

In April, the commission imposed a record $1.6 billion penalty on PG&E in three consolidated proceedings concerning the San Bruno explosion, the utility’s record-keeping and its pipeline operations in highly populated areas.

In a separate investigation of email communications, the commission in November 2014 levied a $1.05 million fine as well as an additional potentially multimillion penalty on PG&E for improper ex parte communications in a so-called judge-shopping case.

The private messages sent by PG&E executives to Florio, former PUC President Michael Peevey and Peevey’s chief of staff sought to influence the selection of an administrative law judge in a rate-setting proceeding.

In addition to calling for Florio’s resignation, San Bruno officials filed a motion with the PUC on Tuesday asking for sanctions against PG&E in connection with the newly released emails.

The brief contends that those messages, together with some that were previously released in January, provide a total of 42 newly alleged instances of forbidden ex parte communications:

“The PG&E/Florio communications demonstrate in their tone, totality, and pervasiveness, a relationship between the utility and this commissioner which is familiar, collegial, and cozy. The email traffic shows PG&E has unfettered access to Commissioner Florio.”

The motion asks for PUC sanctions only against PG&E and not against Florio because the ex parte rules apply only to communications from a utility to a PUC decision-maker, and not the other way around. The sanctions could be a fine or further communication restrictions.

Britt Strottman, a lawyer for San Bruno, said the 42 instances alleged in the motion are in addition to 41 other allegedly improper communications cited in a previous motion now pending before the PUC.

The PUC rules prohibit ex parte communications in some types of proceedings and restrict them in others.

Ex parte communications from regulated parties to the commission are forbidden in adjudicatory proceedings, such as the San Bruno explosion investigation. They are permitted in rate-setting and rule-making proceedings but other parties in a case must be given detailed notice and a chance to have equal time with the decision-maker.

The San Bruno motion contends PG&E violated both types of rules.

In one example, the brief cites an email sent by Brian Cherry, PG&E’s former vice president for regulatory relations, to his boss, former senior vice president Tom Bottorff, on July 23, 2012.

The message reports that Cherry had “an extended lunch” with Florio and his staff advisor that day and that “We discussed a wide range of topics,” including a pending rule-making case to develop a Pipeline Safety Enhancement Plan.

In regard to San Bruno-related issues, Cherry’s report says, “Mike appears to be more engaged with keeping up to date with matters surrounding San Bruno than we thought, which I believe is a positive sign.” Both Cherry and Bottorff were fired by PG&E last year after the judge-shopping emails came to light.

Before joining the commission, Florio, 58, worked as a lawyer for more than 30 years for The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, a consumer advocacy organization that often opposes utilities in PUC proceedings.

The newly disclosed emails were obtained by TURN in a data request approved in January by an administrative law judge, and then provided to San Bruno.

Asked for comment on the messages, PG&E spokesman Keith Stephens said:

“We continue to cooperate with all investigations. In the meantime, we will let the content of the emails speak for themselves. … We are not going to speculate about motivations or the actions of people who are no longer in roles with the CPUC or the company or about events that may or may not have occurred.”