The East Bay assemblyman who wrote a bill that would make Pacific Gas and Electric Co. customers cover the costs of settling lawsuits from last year’s wildfires has a son who works at the utility, The Chronicle has learned.
Both PG&E and the office of the assemblyman — Democrat Bill Quirk of Hayward — confirmed Tuesday that his son, Ian, works for the company, whose equipment state investigators have blamed for starting 16 wildfires across Northern California in October.
Both PG&E and Quirk’s office say that the personal connection has nothing to do with the legislation, though the bill would greatly benefit the company. The bill, AB33, would let PG&E issue state-authorized bonds and use the proceeds to pay for settling the more than 200 lawsuits sparked by the fires. The company’s customers would pay back the bonds over time.
Quirk’s chief of staff said the assemblyman was traveling Tuesday and unavailable for comment. But Quirk, who sits on the Assembly Utilities and Energy Committee, has described his bill as a way to ensure that people who lost their homes in the fires can be compensated quickly, while protecting PG&E from bankruptcy. Estimates of the company’s potential liability from the fires range as high as $15 billion.
“The member’s decision to introduce AB33 has nothing to do with his son working at PG&E,” said Chief of Staff Tomasa Duenas. “It has everything to do with fire victims and protecting ratepayers.
“If PG&E goes bankrupt, fire victims and ratepayers get hurt,” she said. “A bankruptcy court would likely re-prioritize company activities toward restructuring and settling debts, meaning fire victims’ claims will be in limbo.”
Ian Quirk’s LinkedIn page describes him as an “expert portfolio management analyst” who has worked at PG&E since July 2009, following a four-month internship the previous year. His roles have included administering power-purchase contracts and evaluating the economics of proposed transmission lines and wind farms. He did not respond to a message seeking comment on Tuesday.
“It’s always important for legislators to disclose any potential conflicts of interest up front, because when they don’t do that, it can have the appearance of bias,” said Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, a consumer group. “And I think it’s a mistake for Assemblyman Quirk not to let people know.”
Toney said he has known Quirk for years and knew that the assemblyman’s son worked at PG&E.
“I don’t think it’s anything nefarious,” Toney said about the lack of disclosure. “I think it was an oversight, but it’s still a mistake.”
Toney’s group opposes AB33, which he called “so blatantly a bailout” for the company.
Investigators with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, have so far blamed PG&E equipment for sparking 16 of the fires that erupted across Northern California in October during an intense windstorm. In 11 of those cases, the investigators cited evidence that PG&E had not followed state safety laws, and they forwarded their findings to local prosecutors.
PG&E has said it’s studying the Cal Fire reports, and believes its safety programs meet California’s high standards.
Cal Fire has still not released its findings for the most devastating of the blazes — the Tubbs Fire, which ripped through Santa Rosa neighborhoods and killed 24 people.
As lawsuits against the company mounted, PG&E in December suspended its dividend to stockpile cash. Last month, the company announced it would take a $2.5 billion charge against earnings in this year’s second quarter to cover the lowest estimated liability the company could face. PG&E’s parent company, PG&E Corp., last year reported $1.66 billion in profits.
Under AB33, PG&E could ask its regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission to authorize the issuance of “recovery bonds” to be paid off by the company’s customers through a fixed monthly charge on their bills. If the commission later determined that PG&E had acted negligently in maintaining its equipment, and that negligence led to the fires, the commission could credit money already spent on the bonds back to the customers, said Steven Malnight, the utility’s senior vice president of strategy and policy.
“It is not in any way a free pass,” he said. “We think it’s a way to ensure the victims can be paid while the CPUC can do its investigation.”
California law bars public officials from making or influencing government decisions in which they have a financial interest. But Jay Wierenga, communications director for the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, said the prohibition doesn’t extend to actions that affect the officials’ adult offspring.
Jessica Levinson, a professor of law at Loyola University in Los Angeles, said lawmakers also aren’t required to disclose that they have family members who could be affected by their legislation. But it’s probably a good idea.
“The bottom line is, in an abundance of transparency, should he say, ‘My son works at PG&E, that doesn’t affect my decision on this bill?’ Sure,” Levinson said. “Was it legally incumbent on him to do so? I don’t think so.”