By Miriam Raftery
Photo: Michael Picker, CPUC Chairman
March 4, 2015 (Sacramento)--The California Public Utilities Commission needs criminal defense lawyers amid state and federal investigations of corruption allegations, the Commissions new chairman, Michael Picker told a legislative panel this week.
“The organization itself might be the target of a criminal action or a civil action,” Picker stated before the Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications during an oversight hearing. “We don’t have criminal attorneys. This is somewhat new to the organization.”
In February, U-T San Diego that the commission paid a $49,000 retainer fee to hire the law firm Sheppard Mullin to represent the agency in the investigations. Commission critics said the action wastes public funds and designed to protect senior officials.
San Diego Democratic State Senator Ben Hueso chairs the Senate Committee that heard Picker’s testimony. Hueso objected to taxpayers footing the bill for criminal defense of commissioners and their staff. Hueso told Picker, “I don’t remember allocating money to hire criminal representation at the CPUC.”
A string of e-mails have revealed that former CPUC Chairman Michael Peevey and staffers engaged in back-channel communications with Pacific Gas & Electric Company, promising favorable treatment of PG&E in commission hearings including investigation of the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion. Peevey has also been accused by ratepayer activists of overly cozy ties with Southern California Edison over issues involving the San Onofre nuclear plant and with San Diego Gas & Electric Company.
Peevey did not testify before the legislative committee, the Sacramento Bee reports.
An attorney from the Center for ElectroSmog Prevention in La Mesa also attended the State Senate’s CPUC oversight hearing in Sacramento, handing each Senator a press release containing allegations that the CPUC covered up smart meter health dangers, documented in their own emails, as ECM has previously reported. The release also had evidence that the CPUC helped engineer high opt-out costs to force low-income customers to keep smart meters
The oversight hearing Tuesday was the first in what is shaping up as a series of proceedings aimed at getting to the bottom of corruption allegations lodged against current and former commission officials.
For years, legislative oversight of the CPUC has been lax. But that may be changing.
Senator Mike McGuire told legislators, “The Public Utilities Commission really should be rebranded the Utilities Commission. It’s clear the public’s role in the decision-making process is an afterthought and the process is broken.”
Picker, the new CPUC chair, has promised reforms and earlier this year implemented new transparency measures aimed at stopping back-channel dealings, as well as a code of ethics for commissioners The commission is also conducting its own internal review of records and Picker has promised to discipline anyone found to have violated state law or commission rules.