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Massive release of emails between CPUC and utilities also ordered by administrative law judge

By Miriam Raftery

January 18, 2015 (San Diego’s East County) – Taking the helm of the scandal-ridden California Public Utilities Commission, new president Michael Picker announced reforms aimed at ending back-door access by utilities to state regulators and improving transparency to the public.

His predecessor, Michael Peevey, resigned amid a public outcry over his too-cozy relations with utilities on major matters including liability for the San Bruno pipeline explosion and the future of the San Onofre nuclear facility.

Picker said e-mails showing easy access by utilities to decision makers are “troubling and very painful to read.”  “What I can do as President is to make sure that does not happen again,” Picker announced at the first CPUC meeting that he chaired last week.  He also cited serious concerns about a lack of safety oversight and uncertainties as to “whether we are fair and even-handed in our actions.”

The scandals under Peevey’s reign have resulted in state and federal investigations. Picker said the CPUC is cooperating in those probes, which could potentially result in criminal chargers against his predecessor or CPUC staff.

E-mails revealed back-channel communications between Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and Peevey’s chief of staff seeking to limit the utility’s liability for the San Bruno disaster, which killed eight people and leveled a full city block.  Peevey previously appeared to offer favorable treatment to PG&E in exchange for contributions to a ballot measure and a party for CPUC officials.  He also violated CPUC rules by setting up secret meetings in 2013 with a Southern California Edison attorney in London, who called Peevey a “great friend” while the CPUC was deliberating San Onofre issues, a UT San Diego investigation found.

On a related note, last week a CPUC administrative law judge, Amy Yuip-Kikugawa ordered PG&E to publicly release 65,000 email between PG&E and the CPUC, in response to the city of San Bruno’s request for communications regarding the San Bruno gas line explosion. 

Picker revealed that the CPUC has also released emails requested by a San Diego law firm between Peevey and Southern California Edison. He did not name the firm, however former city attorney Mike Aguirre’s law firm has sought extensive records; Peevey in one public hearing became agitated when Aguirre grilled him on his communications with Edison, demanding that Aguirre “shut up.”  

Picker announced that the CPUC has hired Michael Strumwasser of Strumwasser and Woocher as an independent expert to review best practices that the commission should adopt.  “We have also banned one utility, PG&E, from all ex parte communications,” Picker revealed.

To further expand transparence, new reporting procedures will require that communications between certain CPUC staff and regulated entities such as utilities will be reported to the public: online, every week. 

Picker also pledged to comply with a “mountain” of public records requests, which he confirmed are retained in the agency’s archive back to mid-2010.

“We will move the agency forward with openness and transparency,” Picker pledged, making clear that “if there is a prohibition on having a conversation with somebody, I don’t have it…and I expect the same of my fellow Commissioners…Rebuilding the CPUC into an organization that is more fair, open, accessible, and effective must start at the top.” 

He vowed to develop a Commissioner code of ethics that all members must sign and to form committees to hold public meetings on further reform efforts to improve accountability and measure improvement.

Picker also touted plans to improve public safety, though that plan was in the works before he took the helm. He cited a “slow erosion” of safety programs in recent years, notably gas pipeline safety.

He also noted that “customer adoption of rooftop solar and electric vehicles is creating a market place where the Commission’s jurisdiction is no longer all encompassing,” adding that the CPUC will need to adjust its operations to “address these trends and to carry out our role in the Governor’s greenhouse gas reduction program.” 

Picker is the former Senior Advisor for Renewable Energy to Governor Jerry Brown and served since January 2014 as a CPUC commissioner before asking Brown to appoint him to head the CPUC. Brown himself has drawn criticism for failing to speak out about utilities’ undue influence on regulators at the CPUC. The Governor’s sister, Kathleen Brown, is currently a director on the board of Sempra Energy, parent company of San Diego Gas & Electric, leading some to question whether the Governor placed family loyalties above the public interest.

Unlike Peevey, a former senior executive for a major private utility corporation, Picker’s background is primarily in public service, including serving as Deputy Treasurer of California and Chief of Staff to Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna Jr.  He also served as Deputy Assistant for toxic substance control in the Governor’s office in the early ‘80s and as a member of the publicly owned Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s board of directors.  President Picker is a former lecturer at UCLA’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and instructor at Occidental College’s Urban and Environmental Policies Institute. He holds a masters in business degree from UC Davis, specializing in marketing, social marketing, and nonprofit management.

“I am confident that working together and making real changes in how we do business will result in a stronger CPUC that robustly serves the interests of the people of California and helps us improve safety in all the industries we regulate,” Picker concluded on his first day at the helm of the CPUC.  “We have a lot to do,“so let’s giddy-up and go.”

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