Sighs of relief were audible all around California the other day, when the embattled, disgraced Michael Peevey announced he would not seek reappointment to a third six-year term as president of the powerful California Public Utilities Commission.
But the relief was premature. And Peevey’s announcement is not nearly enough to restore credibility to this tainted agency. Only a real house-cleaning can do that.
The announcement from Peevey, ever the crafty fox guarding the unsuspecting henhouse, as this column first labeled him as early as 2005 for his obvious conflicts of interest, means he will stick around long enough to orchestrate the two most important votes of the last 15 years by his five-member commission, which sets rates for privately-owned gas and electric companies.
Peevey’s staff emails and documented conversations with officials of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. about its cases are now notorious. But he’s still due to preside over the vote on how to penalize PG&E for the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes. This decision will also determine how much PG&E customers, who have paid monthly for gas pipeline maintenance over more than 50 years, will be dunned for new pipeline repairs. No one has accounted for the billions of dollars PG&E took in via those payments.
Peevey, a former president of Southern California Edison Co., will also preside over the commission’s vote on how much consumers must pay for the knowingly defective, documented Edison decisions that led to the closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, of which the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. is a part owner.
A preliminary settlement not yet finalized calls for consumers to pay more than $3 billion over the next 10 years for safely mothballing that plant. But customers have already paid monthly for its retirement since the day it opened in the 1970s. No one has explained why consumers should pay anything more.
Neither of these decisions will be made by Peevey alone. The other four commissioners will cast most of the votes, but if they go the way things have since ex-Gov. Gray Davis appointed him in 2002 (with ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reappointing him six years later), the often bullying Peevey will get his way. Both decisions will likely stand unchanged after those votes. Appeals from PUC decisions can only be made directly to the state Supreme Court, which has almost never reversed any.
The other four commission members have never crossed Peevey on an important vote involving prices charged by California’s largest utilities. They have been meek enablers of Peevey’s corruption. They’ve gone along with him on rate increase after rate increase. They’ve acquiesced in keeping secret the prices of giant solar thermal electricity plants whose output will be far more costly than power from conventional oil- or natural gas-fired generating plants. Other commissioners also joined Peevey in trying to bring hyper-expensive, unneeded liquefied natural gas from foreign countries into California. And on and on.
So they’ve been classic enablers. At least one of them, Mike Florio, formerly a longtime consumer attorney who was appointed to the commission in 2011 by Gov. Jerry Brown, has voiced regrets over helping PG&E with “judge-shopping” in the San Bruno case and recused himself from coming votes involving that company.
All of which suggests it’s high time to clean house at the PUC. The only way to restore this powerful agency’s credibility is to dump all the commissioners now, hopefully delaying the two key big-dollar decisions until a new panel can be seated.
For people who knowingly enable corruption are legally and morally just as responsible for it as the actual perpetuator. And that describes the other meek members of this commission.
Even if he wanted to (and he’s shown no sign he does), Brown could not simply fire them like other appointees; like most judges, they serve fixed six-year terms and Peevey’s is the only one about to end. Brown would have to pressure their resignations by doing things like cutting the PUC budget and asking state legislators to suspend their pay.
That’s not likely. Which means that even though a clean sweep is called for, the PUC will most likely continue on its biased path of favoring big utilities over their customers long after the discredited Peevey has left.