Both the current president of the California Public Utilities Commission and one of its member commissioners admit to improper, unethical contacts with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. over items including which judges should rule on the utility’s cases.
So President Michael Peevey and Commissioner Mike Florio recused themselves from voting on current PG&E cases. That, however, didn’t stop them from voting in mid-November to give the Southern California Edison Co. and the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. fully $3.3 billion in customer money (over 10 years) to help pay for Edison’s incompetence at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in northern San Diego County.
This sequence raises three major questions: Why are these men still on the PUC, California’s most powerful regulatory agency, when they can’t participate in vital decisions involving the state’s largest regulated company? If they’ve admitted corruption in handling one large utility firm, should the assumption be that they’ve acted similarly with others, but not been caught? Is there any hope to overturn a recent spate of laughably unjust PUC decisions?
The answers: PUC commissioners serve fixed six-year terms and can’t be dumped in mid-term, even by the governor who appointed them. (In this case, Gov. Jerry Brown has yet to utter a critical word about the disgraced commissioners, implying he doesn’t mind if they serve out their terms. Peevey’s will be over in January.) Peevey and Florio might be pressured into resigning, but no one can force them out.
There is no reason to believe either man behaved differently toward Edison and SDG&E than with PG&E, which is now trying to get the PUC to force customers to pay again for repairing the decrepit gas pipeline system that caused a 2010 explosion which killed eight people in San Bruno. Customers have been dunned monthly for maintenance over several decades, but no one knows where those billions of dollars went.
It’s also true that judges commonly instruct jurors in criminal trials that if they catch a witness in one lie, they can assume the person lied about other matters, too. Similarly, citizens would be justified to figure that if an official acts unethically on one matter, he might also be corrupt on others.
And normally there would be no reason to hope any PUC decision would be overturned. Commission decisions can usually be appealed only to the state Supreme Court and then to the U.S. Supreme Court. Both panels can refuse to hear any appeal. Both have been consistently deferential toward the PUC.
Enter former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who now asks a federal court to insert itself into the legal process and block the San Onofre rate settlement.
Turns out Aguirre dug up a 2000 case where Edison claimed it was not being paid for some power it produced; it called this an unconstitutional taking of property. That case was settled before trial, but okayed by a federal judge.
Aguirre believes consumers have already paid far too much for the debacle at San Onofre, retired after tube leaks caused the failure of hugely expensive steam generators that Edison executives provably knew were flawed long before their installation. He’s trying to turn Edison’s 14-year-old arguments against it, claiming money collected from all customers by Edison and SDG&E from 2005 onward to pay for those generators was an unconstitutional taking of property for which consumers got nothing in return.
“You have Edison (which manages San Onofre) discovering the design problem beforehand and still installing the machinery,” he said. “But the PUC in (processing) the new settlement never allowed (pursuit of) evidence on how Edison acted unreasonably and imprudently. So we’re now using Edison’s own argument against it.”
Whether Aguirre wins or not, the combination of San Bruno and San Onofre expose very clearly the PUC’s longtime pattern of favoring large companies over consumers. More light has been shed over the last six months on the PUC’s multiple shady dealings than in the 40 preceding years.
“There were unconstitutional and illegal backroom deals here,”Aguirre said. That’s essentially what Peevey and Florio admitted to in their dealings with PG&E.
Gov. Brown is the only person who could apply enough pressure to change any of that, but he continues doing nothing while the commission digs itself ever deeper into public distrust.