What Will It Take for PG&E to Be Held Accountable?

Imagine a convicted felon, who, while on probation, committed the same exact crimes he’d originally been convicted of again. The judge would likely be mad, just as Judge William Alsup was when corporate felon PG&E appeared before him on charges it had violated its probation.   But in the end Alsup agreed to let PG&E largely do what it wanted, at least as far as fire safety goes. And ordered the company’s new overpaid and overhyped board of directors to “tour” Paradise.

The judge isn’t the only one who can’t seem to get PG&E under control.

The CPUC was willing to grease the wheels of PG&E’s bankruptcy agenda with remarkable speed. After choosing to file bankruptcy on its own schedule, PG&E needed “debtor in possession” financing, which the CPUC authorized in a emergency meeting in less than a week, over vociferous consumer objections. No investigation into utility wrongdoing has ever progressed at that speed.

The Commission has also had a pattern of largely agreeing to let PG&E spend freely without enough guidance or enough protections for customers from unnecessary or ineffective measures that we ultimately pay for. Unlike the vast majority of its customers, PG&E’s top executives- both past and present- enjoy lavish lifestyles despite the company’s gigantic and frequent failures. Instead of being held accountable, disgraced executives like Geisha Williams, former CEO, or Nick Stavropolous, former COO, leave the scene of P&GE’s crimes via enormous golden parachutes.

Our state legislature certainly didn’t hold PG&E accountable last year, when it happily went along with PG&E’s expensive and expansive lobbying campaign and provided the company the SB 901 bailout- as an alternative to bankruptcy, and in anticipation of Tubbs Fire liabilities. But in fact PG&E wasn’t found responsible for Tubbs, and chose to declare bankruptcy anyhow.

That may be because bankruptcy court has proved a good forum for P&GE’s investors in the past. Ratepayers were shut out of PG&E’s previous voluntary bankruptcy, and got stuck with $8 billion in charges, while stockholders quickly started reaping profits again.

As PG&E continues to flout safety regulations and greedily demands higher profits for its shareholders by jacking up customers’ bills, the calls for a public takeover are growing. Although no official proposals have been made for state ownership, and no existing state agencies would likely want PG&E, public ownership would certainly go a long way toward eliminating the profit motive that drove some of PG&E’s most craven misdeeds, like the totally avoidable explosion In San Bruno.

But the fact is that the regulatory structure, itself overseen by the legislature, is supposed to provide the necessary checks on a monopoly company like PG&E, and prevent the very profiteering the company has become known for. And the criminal courts are supposed to provide the necessary checks on criminal behavior, but have been unable to stop the negligence the PG&E has been found guilty of repeatedly since 1994.

The best hope in holding PG&E accountable may rest with Governor Newsom.. He has been standing up for consumers, saying they shouldn’t get stuck with the costs of disasters of PG&E’s own making. Previous Governors have used their influence to control outcomes at the CPUC, but have mostly gone along with whatever legislation PG&E has purchased in Sacramento. As the leader of our state, Governor Newsom has the power to exercise authority over a rouge corporation that a host of others have failed to rein in.