San Bruno: Release 65k PG&E e-mails

The city of San Bruno asked the California Public Utilities Commission Monday to order PG&E Co. to release 65,000 email messages exchanged between PG&E and agency officials between 2010 and 2014.

Lawyers for the city filed a formal motion with the PUC in San Francisco seeking the messages in connection with three related proceedings in which the commission is investigating a fatal pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010.

The explosion of a PG&E high-pressure natural gas pipeline and subsequent fire on Sept. 9, 2010, killed eight people and injured 66 others. San Bruno’s attorneys wrote that a review of the messages is needed to see whether there is any evidence of “improper influence or ex parte communications with the commission seeking an unfair advantage before the commission.”

Ex parte communications are private messages. San Bruno claims that several dozen such emails released earlier this year show improper communications between PG&E executives and PUC officials on matters such as pending regulatory cases, the selection of administrative law judges and PG&E’s public relations strategy.

San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said in a statement:

“After the illegal activity that has already been exposed, we are outraged by PG&E’s continued inaction. … We will continue to pursue all legal remedies to force the release all 65,000 emails. The public has a right to know what they contain even if that information is further damaging to the credibility and integrity of PG&E and the CPUC.”

The city asked the PUC appoint a special master, at PG&E’s expense, to review the messages and determine which are normal business, which concern confidential matters exempt from disclosure and which are improper communications that should be revealed.

PG&E spokesman Keith Stephens said in a statement:

“We’ve made it clear that we’re absolutely committed to doing the right thing and to complying with both the letter and the spirit of the law and PG&E’s own code of conduct at all times. … We took quick, definitive action from the beginning. We self-reported the violations, we held senior-level officers accountable, and we are making significant changes designed to prevent this from happening again.”

A PUC spokeswoman had no immediate comment on when the two administrative law judges presiding over the San Bruno-related proceedings may consider the motion.

The disclosures began in July, when San Bruno obtained 41 messages between PG&E and PUC officials through a state Public Records Act lawsuit it had filed against the commission in San Francisco Superior Court.

On Sept. 15, PG&E announced that, in the wake of those initial disclosures, it had voluntarily searched through 65,000 messages sent to and from the commission since 2010. PG&E then released a total of 24 messages, in two batches on Sept. 15 and Oct. 6, that it said may have violated commission rules.

The first set of messages, sent in January of this year, concerned PG&E’s efforts to influence the selection of an administrative law judge to consider the rates PG&E can charge consumers to cover the costs of natural gas transmission and storage. PG&E fired three executives after revealing the messages.

Last month, the commission imposed a $1.05 million fine for the judge shopping as well as an additional penalty, to be determined but estimated at up to $400 million, to compensate consumers for the delay in the rate case. PG&E has said it will appeal that ruling.

The second batch of messages included a 2010 email in which now-fired PG&E Vice President Brian Cherry reported to his supervisor on a private dinner with PUC President Michael Peevey.

Cherry wrote in the report that the two men discussed four regulatory proceedings and that Peevey allegedly requested that PG&E contribute $100,000 to a PUC anniversary dinner and at least $1 million to a campaign against a ballot measure.

The second set of emails also contained messages in which Cherry and Commissioner Michel Florio in December 2013 discussed PG&E’s bid to restore the pressure in a disputed natural gas line in San Carlos to normal operating level.

Both Peevey, who will step down from the commission when his term ends this month, and Florio have recused themselves from acting on the rate case and the San Bruno-related proceedings.

San Bruno’s attorneys contended in today’s motion that allowing PG&E alone to determine which of the 65,000 emails should be disclosed “is akin to the fox guarding the henhouse.”

They alleged:

“Given PG&E’s track record and past history of rule violations, these 65,000 emails likely contain evidence that PG&E attempted to influence the outcome of these proceedings to its favor.”