PG&E Could Face Murder Charges for California’s Wildfires

Even though readers and members of the public often express their outrage as to what banks have gotten away with, there’s a good case to be made that PG&E has them beat. How many real companies have been the lead bad guys in a movie? And PG&E has decades of misconduct after the case highlighted in Erin Brockovich, where the chemical discharge from a PG&E plant got into the water table of a neighboring community, and one of the compounds was highly carcinogenic. PG&E lied to the residents, telling them the chemical was beneficial to their health!

For starters, the mere threat of an indictment is a death sentence for a financial firm; that’s why the conservative press was so outraged when Eliot Spitzer used the threat of filing a criminal case against AIG as the leverage to force the ouster of CEO Hank Greenberg. Many customers are prohibited from doing business with a company that had been found guilty of criminal conduct; a high proportion would flee when an indictment was filed, both to minimize controversy and to avoid being caught in a rush for the exits if a case were to be loss or the alleged perp pleaded guilty in a settlement. That’s why in the rare cases when the US has charged a large financial firm, it’s been against a subsidiary.

But PG&E is even more too big to fail than big banks. The giant utility can’t be put out of business because so many communities depend on it.

Nevertheless, the murder charges are a new angle. If AG Beccera isn’t simply trying to convince the public that he takes PG&E’s misdeeds seriously, perhaps he (and this would presumably also mean key power factions in California) have decided that PG&E needs a whole-scale shakeup, which included replacing the CEO and other key executives and much of the board, and the suits are they way to make sure that gets done. One influential CalPERS stakeholder had taken to regularly e-mailing me about PG&E horrors. In sending a November 2018 San Francisco Chronicle article, California regulator lays groundwork for PG&E bailout, he noted:

I’m reminded of Sheldon Wollin’s concept of Inverted Totalitarianism; FDR understood fascism first of all as corporatism — before mass-murder muddied the waters about the brand (Arbeit macht Frei slave-labor was the original Public-Private Partnership). PG&E CEO Geisha Williams is a Marcie Frost clone. Williams was a mediocre 2007 diversity-hire from Florida responsible for electric infrastructure before becoming CEO. She should be wearing denim at the Women’s Prison at Chowchilla; instead she’ll probably get another $8 Million dollar payday…

But even so, how long would it take to turn around such a badly mismanaged company? And how would the new leadership stare down demands to maintain profits, which amount to insisting that the current dangerous skimping on maintenance continues? Here again, court orders may be key to forcing behavior changes.

By Paola Rosa-Aquino, Grist’s justice fellow. Originally published at Grist

It’s been nearly two months since the massive Camp Fire laid waste to the town of Paradise in northern California. It destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and claimed at least 86 lives, making it the deadliest fire in the state’s history. And now the state’s largest public utility provider, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. could face murder or manslaughter charges related to the blazes.

PG&E is already under investigation for criminal wrongdoing related to California’s deadly wildfires. Though investigators have not determined what officially sparked the fire, PG&E reported “an outage”on a transmission line in the area where the blaze began around the time the blazes started.

If district prosecutors find that “reckless operation” of its power equipment caused any of the state’s deadly wildfires in the past two years, the company could be held responsible for not just the resulting property damages but the loss of life as well.

“PG&E’s most important responsibility is public and workforce safety,” the utility, which provides electricity to about 16 million Californians, said in a statement. “Our focus continues to be on assessing our infrastructure to further enhance safety and helping our customers continue to recover and rebuild.”

On Friday, California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra submitted a legal brief to a federal judge who is considering how the wildfires could affect PG&E’s probation from a criminal case born out a 2010 explosion at a natural gas pipeline operated by PG&E. The judge will have to gauge PG&E’s “mental state” — meaning, its employees’ degree of negligence and recklessness — before determining which charges to bring, if any.

Potential charges range from minor misdemeanors related to poor maintenance of trees along power lines to involuntary manslaughter or murder if the company is found to be the cause of the wildfires.

In addition to possible criminal charges, PG&E could be found liable for billions of dollars in civil damages. But it’s not just the company that will bear the burden of any resulting settlements. In September 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill which permitted PG&E to pass on some of the costs related to utility’s role in the 2017 wildfires on to their customers.

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20 comments

  1. JBird4049

    (Arbeit macht Frei slave-labor was the original Public-Private Partnership)

    That is…disturbingly accurate, much like all the carceral businesses staffed by prisoners and the many profitable privately run municipal jails, and state and federal prisons, and ICE detention. Over 2.5 million people often not even convicted or even charged making bank for somebody.

    I Just wish the image of an American Arbeitseinsatz hadn’t happened just before going to sleep.

    1. Dwight

      Your quote reminds me of The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future by Richard Rubenstein. The book describes the Holocaust as the bureaucratic process of creating stateless persons, who then become utterly dominated persons from which labor can be extracted at the lowest possible cost for the benefit of the state and private corporations, and who can then be destroyed when they can no longer provide labor. The book can be read online at the Library of Social Science website.

  2. ObjectiveFunction

    I knew PG&E quite well.

    The hollowing out of a company whose 1960s engineering culture once set the standard for US utilities is a pretty typical story of American corporate decay. Every PG&Eer who grew up in that old culture has retired or gone now. Passed over in favor of MBA ex-consultants, ex-bankers or diversity dilettantes. Marginalized and reorged into chaos by waves of consultants who swarm over Big Blue like gulls on a beached whale, gorging on (literally) hundreds of millions in ratepayer money and leaving behind… Powerpoints.

    But because it’s a (badly) regulated business, and now once again a (US, white) civilian body count has resulted from that rot, you can read all about it in the public domain. These particular consultants nailed it in 2011. Read it and weep….

    http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/uploadedFiles/CPUC_Public_Website/Content/Safety/Natural_Gas_Pipeline/News/Final%20Report

    “PG&E has been in a state of perpetual organizational instability for more than a decade.

    “We detected employee fatigue at the number and scope of reorganizations [which] have undermined the continuity of institutional knowledge…. Process excellence appears to be one of the victims…. few understood how the individual roles fit into the larger framework.

    “Simply put, “the rubber did not meet the road”…. From 2007, when the risk management framework identified process safety concerns until 2010 when the San Bruno [explosion] occurred, management’s focus was elsewhere.

    “Ironically, utility management described its vision to be “the leading utility in the United
    States”…. However, inspirational goals must also be grounded in… a realistic view of the current state, in order to set goals which will mobilize the workforce. The culture [is] of a company… whose rhetoric does not match its practices….

    We would cite the following five factors as contributing to a dysfunctional culture:

    1. Excessive levels of management…. as many as nine levels between the CEO and the front-line employee… setting the direction is distant from those who know the business the best.

    2. Inconsistent presence of subject matter expertise in management. Repeated reorganizations… large presence of telecom*, legal and finance executives in top leadership positions, and the
    under representation of engineers and professionals with significant operating
    experience in the industry.

    (* CFO then imperial CEO Peter Darbee, ex-Salomon, ex-Sprint, packed the VP ranks with protégés from his former posts, forcing out lifers not on board with his big plans, or the latest consultants’ latest w&nk)

    3. Appearance-led strategy setting. Elevated concern about the company’s image… putting forth a major initiative without having done the necessary work underneath ultimately undermines the company’s credibility with its employees as well as the public…. A “compliant” company may or may not be running a safe
    system.

    4. Insularity. When PG&E went through its bankruptcy, much of the outside participation in industry conferences… was curtailed…. PG&E senior management benchmarked only against themselves, showing only PG&E safety trends.

    5. Overemphasis on financial performance… dampen the willingness of the organization to challenge the priorities or resources put in place by upper management…. Other than mandatory work, all other priorities were subject to internal debate among top executives…. Any work — pipeline integrity management or otherwise — that was not mandatory could arguably be deferred.

    1. Louis Fyne

      Ignoring regulatory capture is the original sin of the left/progressives.

      Whether it’s local zoning or taxis, state utilities or the SEC a big chunk of the progressive movement can’t be bothered with the nuts/bolts pedantic, boring details of governance.

      Virtue signaling is so much easier to accrue social media likes.

      And many wonder why people “vote againsy their interests”. If current government is failing you, why would someone want more? They’d rather metaphorically blow up the status quo in a nihilistic spasm….like the closing scene of the film ‘fight club’

      https://www.bing.com/search?q=fight+club+closing+scene+youtube

  3. The Rev Kev

    As tragic as the deaths in that fire were, those deaths were measured in the scores. I would be more interested in hearing about certain people being put on trial for their part in the deaths of nearly 50,000 Americans in just the past year alone from what they manufacture. Give a few more years and the death toll per year will match the 58,000 Americans killed in the Vietnam war over the course of a decade.

  4. EoH

    There’s always nationalization. Pour encourager les autres.

    Shareholders would not be harmed by it. If harmed, it would be owing to serial criminal conduct by former officers and directors. Bondholders might be repaid more. Californian and regional communities dependent on what PG&E does for a living – generate power – would be benefited, if new management worked under a new mandate for responsible corporate conduct.

    That’s the red pill. Continuing with immunized and business-as-usual conduct would be the blue pill.

  5. Trustee

    If you really want to change things you need to get their attention.

    My suggestion: block all management bonuses, forbid dividends and stock buybacks. Use all savings to reduce rates unless spent on specific, identifiable and measurable safety programs.

    Permit bonuses and dividends to be reestablished only after all damages have been repaid.

  6. David in Santa Cruz

    I’m traveling today, so I must be brief. Murder charges against individual PG&E executives is not far-fetched, other than the problem of regulatory and prosecutorial capture in a society that views scores of horrible deaths with the callous detachment of a generation raised by television.

    California has for decades prosecuted repeat drunk drivers who kill for murder under the legal theory of Implied Malice.

    The defendant acted with express malice if (he/she) unlawfully intended to kill.

    The defendant acted with implied malice if:

    1. (He/She) intentionally committed an act;
    2. The natural and probable consequences of the act were dangerous to human life;
    3. At the time (he/she) acted, (he/she) knew (his/her) act was dangerous to human life; AND
    4. (He/She) deliberately acted with conscious disregard for human life.

    As early as 1997, PG&E was prosecuted and convicted of 739 counts of Criminal Negligence in Nevada County California for a 1994 fire caused by the failure to perform line maintenance required by the state PUC.

    The diversion of maintenance funds into dividends and excessive executive compensation has been repeated and intentional for decades, causing scores of horrible deaths and billions in property damage. The current CEO was in charge of electric infrastructure since 2007. The lack of maintenance and hardening of infrastructure was deliberate on her part.

    Corporations are people too, my friends. Corporations don’t kill; people kill.

    1. Ford Prefect

      The evidence seizure process would probably pop up some really interesting e-mails, memos, and internal reports.

  7. akaPaul LaFargue

    The SF Bay Guardian for decades agitated for the county of SF to takeover PG&E. The former editor of that now defunct paper runs 48Hills blog and here you can read their critical PG&E postings.

    1. Dan

      In fact San Franciscans have been agitating for this for almost a century. They came very close in the elections of 1932 and 1936 IIRC!

  8. wilwon3

    I have been watching You Tube videos which covered fires in a variety of locations in CA over 2017-2018; in many videos one observes phenomena which are exemplified by the information in the following link:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mzxdks6ZnXs
    titled:
    California Wildfires EXPOSED – Direct Energy Weapons

    This is not an indication of the causation of CA wildfires in general, however, the potential involvement of DEWs in a number of incidents may be likely. Such selective burning would appear to represent phenomena which could be facilitated by Directed Energy Weapons (weaponized lasers) which may be operated remotely within drones or other aircraft.
    Similar weapons were speculated by Dr Judy Wood to have been employed in the destruction of WTC buildings 1, 2 and, possibly, others on Sept. 11, 2001.

    1. Wukchumni

      I’ll put on my Reynolds wrap touque and check into that, but i’d suggest that the direct energy weapon in these fires was a lit cigarette butt defenestrated from a passing vehicle.

      No ands ifs or butts about it, they are by far the commonest item I encounter when doing roadside trash pickup~

      1. JBird4049

        Cigarette butts and poorly managed fires are the main causes, but PG&E has drastically reduced its maintenance, which has caused exploding neighborhoods and fires, because it cost money to do.

      2. wilwon3

        I am aware that viewing You Tube videos provides limited information about causation of expired events, however, it is difficult to understand how many of the fires in CA resulted in extensive damage to individual properties in various housing developments while other adjacent properties are left unscathed. Automobile damage was seen to frequently involve metal which was molten for a significant interval before it subsequently migrated, then solidified on a paved or earthen surface.

        In accidental fires, portions of a typical house kitchen, bathroom and/or plumbing frequently survive in damaged condition; in forest fires there are usually indications that nearby trees, shrubs, and/or other nearby vegetation are severely damaged. I suggest you watch the indicated You Tube video and ponder the events.

        An expert might be able to give more precise information, however, examination of the following table: “Heatwork Chart: Transformation of Ceramic Materials by Heat” at:
        http://www.lakesidepottery.com/HTML%20Text/Tips/Tempruturerange.htm
        indicates that carbon-based fires correspond to temperatures in the range of 300 to 800 degrees C. Vitrification of clay begins after carbon has been completely oxidized at 800 and continues up to around 1400 degrees C. From a chart at: https://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/melting-temperature-metals-d_860.html,
        one sees that aluminum melts at around 660 degrees C; while wrought iron melts at around 1500 to 1600 degrees C. Examination of the materials in seriously disabled automobiles seem to indicate the presence of various plastic components strewn about in the interiors of the vehicles, while along the outside of the vehicle are shiny silver colored pools of solid material (Aluminum or an alloy?) may indicate some peculiar properties of the agent that caused that destruction. That a cigarette butt or match initiated these events seems unlikely. If employees of PG&E were involved, it may be that events occurred to allow some of these peculiar observations.

        1. JBird4049

          may indicate some peculiar properties of the agent that caused that destruction. That a cigarette butt or match initiated these events seems unlikely. If employees of PG&E were involved, it may be that events occurred to allow some of these peculiar observations.

          I can understand why those fires would cause suspicions among some as they were usually severe. California has had a lot experience in preventing fires from getting that bad. The reasons for the fires starting and getting so nightmarish were not due to some secret chemical or plot, but rather by:

          1) Unusually long drought killing even the native drought tolerant trees and shrubs.

          2) Heavy rainfalls killing the already stressed plants that had optimized themselves for surviving the lack of water.

          3) A second drought then finishing off all the weaken plants and creating a massive growth of annuals like grasses, which promptly die.

          4) Decades of almost complete fire suppression, lack of brush clearance, and as the well off preventing controlled burns (kills the view and decreases property values for a while), and the poor unable to get the controlled burns (low density population and public service cut backs, including fire fighting, means they are low on the list for what burns there are.)

          5) An extremely high build up of fuel.

          6) An increasing population of usually poor, sick, elderly, even homeless individuals and even whole families, long range commuters(Housing and jobs are often hours apart), as well as the occasional monied person. A lot of people move up there because it’s that or the streets of San Francisco, San Jose, or Los Angeles.

          7) Bad and/or narrow roads often with few or no turn offs, leading from small groups of houses and whole neighborhoods. Perfect traps.

          Trust me, even driving during the day with no stress, can be stressful as (Worse case true.) “Oh man another grandmother, flat tire, engine trouble on this two (or one lane two way road!) on the side of rough field, hill, or freaking hundred foot cliff, and oh yeah who is best able to go in reverse right here, me or them, and where is the d*** turn off?” Add extreme terror, worry, and even grief, the places where the roads were on fire, or close enough as no difference…

          8) Distressed governments lacking the funds to do anything even when they want to. And they did want to, but when it is paying for teachers, fixing potholes, some few police, keeping the fire department going, or brush clearing and you only have money for 2-3 things and not for 4-5…

          9) High steady winds, often for hours or even days, here in California, and high temperatures with very little moisture.

          10) Resulting in massive fires that invaded downtown of modest cities/towns like Santa Rosa or obliterating small ones like Paradise. Although to be fair, Paradise was more entombed by the forest, whereas Santa Rosa has large openish areas with no forests. Still, large outdoor crematoriums in which groups of people were trapped, often in traffic jams, or in neighborhoods, burnt/boiled alive or suffocated, and then incinerated. Think of nature’s Firestorm like Dresden, Hamburg, or Tokyo. The stories between them and California are similar in the small details because at some point fires change from being something like a camp or house fire into an almost living monster.

          11) We are going to have more such fires, as even rich NIMBY areas like Marin have those conditions, and then we’ll see how BMWs, Mercedes, and Teslas hold up.

  9. heresy101

    PG&E is about ready to bite the dust but it will probably take a referendum because the Damnocrats that now run CA are in PG&E’s pocket except for Jerry Hill of San Mateo.

    About 50% of the energy that customers use in the PG&E area now comes from Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) entities. All but about 15% of customers in PG&E’s territory are projected to ultimately be served by PG&E. PG&E has been trying to shift their expensive power contracts costs to the CCAs to make them less competitive with PG&E but more CCAs are still forming (LA County just became a CCA).

    Many CCAs are run by former public power individuals who not only procured power but oversaw the wires, billing, IBEW, etc of a complete distribution electric utility. It would be a busy period of converting to a municipal utility but nothing that the current CCA heads couldn’t handle. Additionally, there is SMUD, MID, TID, SCPPA, and NCPA that can provide technical assistance.

    25% of electric power in CA is served by public power organizations and most all are below PG&E rates. When the cost of 2017, and now 2018, fires is added to PG&E’s rates, Californians will be ready and eager to get rid of the investor owned utilities (IOUs). Most of the rate base (invested poles and equipment that the IOUs make their 10% profit on) is over thirty years old. PG&E should only be paid the book value of their assets in a buyout and there is NO “goodwill” to purchase.

    It is time to drive a wooden stake through the vampire of PG&E!!

  10. Anonymous

    I get that MBAs have taken over PG&E, that the once proud company has gone seriously down hill, and that they were found to have covered up their culpability in the gas pipleline matter. And that if they are found to be guilty they would be more than fair game. But does anyone have the goods on them regarding the wildfire, or are we so far just speculating?

    AFIK, the Mercury News reported that PG&E promptly notified authorities of a transmission line issue in the vicinity of the Camp Fire ignition, and around the time the fire started. No cover-up there, as in the pipeline case. So, my questions are, has anyone found evidence that the failure of the PG&E equipment caused the fire? And if they have, is there evidence of negligence or worse?

    Not defending them, just trying to ascertain the state of play.

    1. David in Santa Cruz

      Most sources, including the San Francisco Chronicle and the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, report that after a year-long investigation CalFire determined that 16 of the 18 October 2017 fires that killed 22 and injured close to 100 in Sonoma, Mendocino, and Napa Counties were started by PG&E equipment, and that CalFire referred 11 of the ignitions to local prosecutors for criminal prosecution due to criminal negligence on the part of the utility. PG&E, their criminal defense lawyers in the San Bruno gas explosion, and some of their political allies on Wall Street and in Sacramento are currently engaged in a propaganda campaign to dispute these clear findings.

      The 2018 Redding/Shasta County “fire tornado” does not appear to have been caused by PG&E.

      The November 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County is too recent for investigators to have reached a conclusive cause, but all evidence points to PG&E. Whether or not they tried to engage in a cover-up is irrelevant to whether executives diverted funds from safety in a conscious disregard for the clear danger to human life.

      Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsey is an old-school “cow county” D.A. with a bright young staff. He will be under a lot of political pressure from all sides, but he just might be the right prosecutor have the gumption to go after individual PG&E executives for 86 counts of Implied Malice Murder.

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