Feds Say PG&E Opened Door to New Evidence

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — On what was set to be the last day of a criminal trial that has lasted more than six weeks, prosecutors on Tuesday said Pacific Gas and Electric opened the door to new evidence by making unsupported claims in its closing argument.
The government accused PG&E attorney Steven Bauer of crossing the line during his close by suggesting that no alleged violations of pipeline safety laws caused the 2010 San Bruno explosion that killed eight people.
“We know this case is not about the explosion at all,” Bauer told the jury. “I bet you were surprised to hear that, especially given that the government used as its second exhibit a picture of San Bruno and where homes were destroyed.”
Before the trial started on June 17, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ruled the cause of the blast was not relevant to determining whether PG&E was guilty of 12 counts of violating pipeline safety laws and one count of obstructing an investigation of the explosion.
Bauer read a limiting instruction the judge issued earlier in the case, stating the jury would see “no evidence” that a regulatory violation caused the blast, and that the jury was not tasked with determining the cause of the explosion.
Bauer expected to wrap up his closing statement after a 20-minute recess on Tuesday when U.S. Assistant Attorney Hartley West objected, saying the company opened the door for the government to present new evidence on the cause of the blast.
West further objected to Bauer’s contention that prosecutors failed to prove charged pipeline segments were located in high-concentration areas, or densely populated zones as defined under federal law.
“The government did not prove lines were in high-concentration areas, only that PG&E treated it like it was in an HCA (high-concentration area),” Bauer said. “IF PG&E is being conservative about which lines are in an HCA, that doesn’t prove they were in an HCA.”
That line of reasoning was part of a bigger argument Bauer made to the jury on Tuesday, insisting that prosecutors relied on PG&E’s records to establish facts despite also claiming the company failed to keep accurate records.
Bauer held his hand high in the air, signifying the high standard for proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and placed another hand much lower, suggesting the government’s case fell far below that standard.
The PG&E attorney spent two hours making his “reasonable doubt” case to the jury after U.S. Assistant Attorney Jeffery Schenk delivered the government’s closing argument.
Schenk said PG&E deliberately chose not to keep accurate records on pipeline characteristics and repair records that were used to make critical safety decisions for gas lines in populated areas.
The prosecutor described PG&E as a company that “lost its way” and forced its engineers to “act more like businessmen” and make decisions to “maximize profits.”
Schenk reminded jurors of testimony from PG&E engineer Frank Dauby, who said PG&E chose to conduct external corrosion surveys that cannot detect manufacturing threats or find corrosion on pipes as well as other testing methods in a bid to save money.
The government attorney also cited PG&E’s April 2011 letter to the National Transportation Safety Board recanting a document that stated it would only prioritize pipelines as high risk if the maximum pressure was exceeded by plus 10 percent, a practice incompatible with federal law. Schenk offered that letter as proof that the company intentionally misled investigators.
Meanwhile, PG&E says that document was merely a draft sent to investigators by mistake, and that it never had a policy of ignoring over-pressurization of gas lines in populated areas.
“When you apply your reason and common sense, you’ll reach the only verdict that makes sense — guilty on all charges,” Schenk told the jury.
If convicted on all counts, PG&E faces a $562 million fine on top of the $1.6 billion penalty handed down by the California Public Utilities Commission last year.
The judge is expected to rule on the government’s motion to introduce new evidence on claims asserted in PG&E’s closing statement on Wednesday morning.

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