Columns
October 24, 2020
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California Focus

Thomas D. Elias
Secret meetings next big scandal for state PUC?
October 9, 2020

It doesn’t seem to matter who the commissioners are, or which governor appoints them, constant scandal seems to dog this state’s Public Utilities Commission. 

Despite a criminal investigation that revealed proof of a secret rate-fixing deal between former PUC President Michael Peevey and executives of Southern California Edison Co., nothing came of that scandal except Peevey’s quiet departure when his term ended. Peevey was an appointee of ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

When the PUC’s failure under Jerry Brown appointee Michael Picker to enforce maintenance rules on Pacific Gas & Electric Co. led to the Camp Fire and 85 deaths, state legislators nevertheless gave the PUC authority for supervising the huge utility’s new fire safety program.

And on and on.

So, it’s unlikely much will happen to current PUC President Marybel Batjer, who helped craft a $13.5 billion electric company wildfire bailout for which customers now pay monthly, over her commission’s latest potential scandal. Batjer worked for Gov. Gavin Newsom when she helped craft that corporate rescue; Newsom then made her the commission’s boss.

Commissioners including the agency president get six-year staggered terms and cannot be fired even by the governor who appointed them. The PUC now features two Newsom appointees and three Brown leftovers.

Now Batjer, in her second year, stands accused in court filings and letters of conducting secret commission meetings and of first suspending and then firing her agency’s executive director, Alice Stebbins, as payback for Stebbins’ reporting that the PUC has not collected about $200 million in fees and fines the agency assessed. Batjer says Stebbins was fired over a hiring matter.

The fees and fines, owed by a variety of utilities, can sometimes be important political and public relations tools, especially when imposed as penalties for corporate malfeasance. The PUC invariably reaps positive publicity when it trumpets penalties, but it allegedly fails to collect some of them.

 That money could be important for an agency which has often said it can’t enforce all its rules because it has insufficient personnel. Imagine how many inspectors could be hired with 200 million extra dollars.

No one knows just what decisions have lately been made in the secret meetings alleged in a filing from consumer attorney Michael Aguirre, a former elected city attorney of San Diego. The commission legally must provide public summaries of any closed meetings, but Aguirre’s brief cites a spreadsheet listing “a staggering number of closed meetings of the commission in the past three years, most of them on matters which do not justify closed sessions.”

Another report alleges that in Batjer’s first 13 months as PUC president, she held more than 21 closed meetings, with specific dates listed.

The Aguirre brief, filed with the state’s First District Court of Appeals – the main court where reviews of PUC decisions are possible – charges “the utilities and their supposed regulator, the PUC, systematically engage in secret government decision-making…”

That description is consistent with evidence gathered in the Peevey-era investigation into how SoCal Edison customers were dunned for the Edison-caused 2012 failure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. A search warrant led to discovery in Peevey’s home of a napkin from a Warsaw hotel where he met Edison executives during an international conference. Handwritten on the napkin were the terms of the assessment later charged to electric customers.

Says the Aguirre brief, “There is a profound public interest in the PUC keeping meetings open to the public as required by (law). Under the PUC, the combined revenue authorized to be taken from utility customers is almost $30 billion (per year) …”

Aguirre asserts the commission is illegally holding closed sessions without reporting actions agreed to there. Essentially, he’s saying no one knows how much less customers might pay for power, natural gas and water if all PUC decisions were made. 

Which means almost all Californians have a major stake in the outcome of this case and the eventual fate of the gutsy Stebbins, who raised the alarm in a remarkable case akin to a corporate general manager blowing the whistle on the very CEO who hired her.

 

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It" is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net