California Attorney General Brought into PG&E Wildfire Probe
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra was asked by a federal judge to weigh in on whether reckless operation of power lines by PG&E Corp. in connection with deadly Northern California wildfires would constitute a crime.
The request by U.S. District Judge William Alsup this week comes on the heels of his order last week demanding assurances from PG&E by Dec. 31 that its electric grid hasn’t endangered the public. The company is under the judge’s supervision after it was convicted of safety violations in the wake of a natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people in 2010.
PG&E is under intense scrutiny over whether its equipment sparked the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and leveled the town of Paradise in Northern California. Residents who lost loved ones and homes have filed lawsuits against the utility, blaming the company’s power lines for starting the fire. No cause has been determined.
PG&E remains on probation, and forbidden from committing new crimes, after it was slapped in January 2017 with a maximum fine of $3 million by another San Francisco federal judge, Thelton Henderson, who said its felony crimes related to its gas pipeline operations were “very serious and pose great risk to the public safety.” Alsup inherited the case when Henderson retired.
Alsup has a history of referring matters under his supervision to prosecutors for further investigation. When he was presiding over Waymo’s lawsuit accusing Uber Technologies Inc. of trade-secret theft, he referred the case to federal prosecutors.
State investigators have blamed PG&E’s equipment for causing 17 of last year’s devastating wine country fires that killed 44 people and have alleged violations of state law in 11 of those incidents. PG&E has lost a chunk of its market value in the past year amid concerns about the ability of the utility to cover mounting liabilities.
The judge’s question about whether the utility faces potential criminal liability for its conduct comes less than two months after PG&E reached a $1.5 million settlement with a local prosecutor, Mike Ramsey, who was investigating the company’s role in three wildfires from 2017. Ramsey is the district attorney for Butte County, which was also ground zero for this year’s Camp Fire.
Ramsey and Becerra didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on Alsup’s latest filing.
In a 1997 case, PG&E was convicted of 739 misdemeanor counts of criminal negligence for a pattern of failing to trim trees near its power lines, which at the time was the biggest criminal case ever against the state’s largest utility and carried a maximum fine of $2 million, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle.
As of June, PG&E was under investigation by elected district attorneys in the counties of Sonoma, Lake, Napa and Humboldt for eight of 2017’s Wine Country fires.