Former Utility Watchdog Judge Blows Whistle on Firing

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The former chief administrative law judge of California’s utility watchdog filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the state Wednesday, claiming she was fired for cooperating with investigations into the regulator’s shady dealings with state utilities.

Plaintiff Karen Clopton served as the California Public Utilities Commission’s first black chief administrative law judge for over six years before she was fired this past August. She managed 40 judges who routinely handled complaints against powerful private companies such as PG&E, Southern California Edison and Uber.

Her 14-page complaint, filed Wednesday in San Francisco Superior Court, was not made available by the court until Thursday.

The five-member commission fired Clopton in August, accusing her of bullying and intimidating her peers and subordinates.

During her six years with the regulator, Clopton and her judges were perennial thorns in the utilities’ side. She helped investigate PG&E’s disastrous 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion – which resulted in a record $1.6 billion fine – and the massive 2015 Aliso Canyon methane gas leak.

Despite an accomplished resume which includes stints on various state bar committees and appointments by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Clopton claims she was fired for cooperating with state and federal investigations into PG&E.

In wake of the investigations, the commission fined PG&E $1 million in 2014 for contacting Commissioner Mike Florio and other staff in an attempt to influence judicial selections.

According to the complaint, the regulator also retaliated against Clopton for recommending against executive director Timothy Sullivan’s appointment of a biased judge candidate. Clopton warned the candidate, Michael Colvin, had unethical relationships with PG&E employees and “disparaged” current black judges in emails.

Colvin served as an administrative law judge for three months and is still employed by the commission in a separate capacity.

Clopton’s attorney Jane Brunner says the judge was fired for participating in the “judge-shopping” investigation and for shedding light on racial bias within the commission.

“The intimidation claims are absolutely not legitimate,” Brunner said. “This is what happens to many whistleblowers; they do the right thing, they take the correct action when something is illegal, they complain about it and then they get blamed.”

Clopton says she fought for racial equality during her stint by introducing new training programs, diversifying the bench and discussing race discrimination concerns with commissioners on a weekly basis.

“That’s why I’m in trouble, you know,” Clopton said at a press conference in September. “Because I talk back, I speak out, I stand up. And I’m going to continue to do it.”

Clopton wants to be reinstated as chief administrative law judge with back pay along with general damages and punitive damages against some of the individual defendants.

The complaint names the regulator and its five appointed commissioners. Commission spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said that while it has not seen the lawsuit, “the [commission] dismissed Karen Clopton for cause, and will vigorously defend its decision as necessary.”

The commission is responsible for monitoring the state’s railroads and passenger transportation companies as well as utilities. Commissioners are currently appointed by the governor.

The embattled utilities watchdog has been involved in various high-profile controversies over the last decade.

Former commission president Michael Peevey stepped down after accusations surfaced that he arranged a secret deal with utility executives to pass on the billions it cost to close down the San Onofre nuclear power plant to Southern California Edison ratepayers. Edison was eventually fined $16.7 million by the commission for covering up the ex parte communications.

The controversy spurred legislative action, as in 2016 Gov. Jerry Brown signed commission reforms that included enhanced ex parte communication rules for commissioners, new performance standards for the commission and its executive director and guidelines for the attorney general to bring enforcement actions against commission employees.

Clopton’s attorney with Siegel, Yee & Brunner in Oakland says the former judge simply “wants her job back.”

“They never got her side of the story and that will be a big issue of contention,” Brunner said.

 

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