PG&E e-mails show back-channel badness

PG&E Co. Monday made public 12 new sets of email messages that it said appear to show violations of rules against back-channel communications with regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission.

The San Francisco-based utility also announced that in mid-February, it will release almost all of 65,000 email communications sent to and from PG&E executives and PUC commissioners and staff between 2010 and 2014.

The 65,000 emails will be given to the PUC so that the agency can “provide and manage a process for open public access to those emails,” PG&E said. Between now and February, PG&E will go over the messages to see whether there is confidential contract and customer information that should be kept private.

Today’s actions by PG&E come in the wake of several previous disclosures, beginning in July, of a total of several dozen emails between PG&E and the PUC that showed allegedly improper communications on several regulatory matters.

The city of San Bruno — which sustained a PG&E pipeline explosion that killed eight people in 2010 — had last week asked the commission to order PG&E to release all of the 65,000 emails. San Bruno argued that allowing PG&E alone to decide which emails should be disclosed was “akin to the fox guarding the henhouse.”

Most of the new group of 12 email chains released today are internal messages sent within PG&E between 2010 and 2014 by now-fired PG&E Vice-President Brian Cherry and other executives to report on alleged conversations with outgoing commission President Michael Peevey, Commissioner Michel Florio and three now-retired commissioners.

The reported discussions concerned the PUC’s investigations of the San Bruno explosion, PG&E’s bid for approval of a natural gas-fired power plant in Oakley, and the utility’s plan to operate a wind turbine project in Kern County, among other matters.

PG&E submitted the messages to the PUC Monday, with a notice that they represent ex parte, or private, communications, and also released the messages publicly.

PG&E Chairman Tony Earley said in a statement:

“Some of the emails that we are reporting today suggest clear violations of ex parte rules along with behavior that clearly failed to meet our expectations. … We sincerely regret that and have taken action to prevent it in the future. Other emails represent judgment calls that we are submitting out of an abundance of caution.”

In one of the newly disclosed messages, Cherry wrote to his supervisor, now-terminated PG&E Senior Vice President Tom Bottorff, on Jan. 1, 2013, to report on a meeting he had the day before with Peevey at Sea Ranch, where Peevey has a house.

Cherry said in the message that Peevey characterized San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane as “emotional” and City Manager Connie Jackson as “nuts.” He also wrote that 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. … Jerry’s direct plea was to Ferron was decisive. Mike suggested that Tony call the governor personally and thank him.”

Although the PUC approved the Oakley project in 2012, a state appeals court in San Francisco overturned the approval in February of this year, saying that the PUC lacked substantial evidence for its action. This fall, PG&E announced it had withdrawn its plan.

Ruane said Monday that the new emails are shocking and alleged they show new proof of corruption between PG&E and the PUC:

“These latest emails provide additional undisputed proof of the same public corruption between PG&E and the CPUC that has led to the termination of top PG&E executives and a shake-up of this state agency. … These emails demonstrate PG&E executives making deals with commissioners about public rates and public safety outside of public view. It’s illegal, it’s unethical, it’s wrong.”

Ruane also said PG&E should disclose all of the 65,000 emails from the past five years immediately, instead of in February, and said San Bruno will announce its next legal actions by the end of the year.

Evan Westrup, Brown’s press secretary, said:

“Generally we do not comment on triple hearsay.”