Monday, August 15, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Justice Department declines to extend PG&E probation

A lawyer for two PG&E customers called the Justice Department’s decision “disappointing” and predicted more Californians will die in wildfires sparked by the utility’s equipment in the future.

 (CN) — The Justice Department will not seek an extension of Pacific Gas and Electric’s federal probation before it ends later this month, despite pressure from public interest groups urging it to do so.

“Based on the unique history and circumstances of this case, the United States does not intend to seek an extension of PG&E’s probationary term or imposition of a new one,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jeffrey Schenk and Noah Stern wrote in a 3-page status report.

During a probation hearing Monday, Senior U.S. District Judge William Alsup said he would give “serious consideration” to a request to extend PG&E’s probation beyond the Jan. 25 expiration date if asked, despite ambiguity as to whether a federal defendant’s probation can be prolonged past the five-year maximum allowed under federal law.

Prosecutors acknowledged an apparent lack of “binding case law” but cited the text of a statute requiring that probation terms be imposed concurrently even after a defendant’s probation is revoked.

“Since terms cannot run consecutively, PG&E would presumably receive credit for the full terms already served at this point, in the event of resentencing,” the prosecutors wrote.

PG&E has been serving a five-year probation term since January 2017 after being convicted of six crimes related to the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and leveled a neighborhood.

At Monday's probation hearing, Judge Alsup also scolded the utility for refusing to admit to charges that it violated its probation terms by breaking state laws when its equipment sparked two destructive wildfires in 2019 and 2020.

An evidentiary hearing on the probation violations had been scheduled for Jan. 10, but federal prosecutors on Thursday asked Alsup to cancel it.

Prosecutors said any state law violations will be adjudicated in state court, where two criminal cases are pending against the utility in Sonoma and Shasta counties. PG&E is accused of negligent maintenance near its power lines, which investigators say sparked the Kincade Fire in 2019 and the Zogg Fire in 2020.

The Kincade Fire burned more than 77,000 acres and destroyed 374 buildings in Sonoma County over two weeks in the fall of 2019. Fire investigators say PG&E improperly configured equipment for a transmission tower, which caused increased stress on a worn jumper cable that failed and snapped off the tower, igniting the blaze.

The Zogg Fire burned 56,000 acres over 16 days, destroyed 204 structures and killed four people, including a mother and her 8-year-old daughter. Cal Fire determined the fire started on Sept. 27, 2020, when a gray pine tree fell on a PG&E distribution line. PG&E has acknowledged that a gray pine tree in the same location where the fire started was flagged for removal in 2018 but never removed.

“At this juncture, it appears that the state courts are the proper forum for further development of the evidence,” the federal prosecutors wrote. “Furthermore, if PG&E is convicted, a broader array of sentencing options will be available in that forum.”

Two groups filed amicus briefs in PG&E’s criminal case Wednesday urging Alsup to extend probation and hold the utility accountable for alleged probation violations.

In a phone interview Thursday, Michael Aguirre — a lawyer for one of the groups — called the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s decision “really disappointing” for people who rely on federal law enforcement to protect them from repeat criminal offenders like PG&E.

“They can just keep right on their destructive road of causing more and more fires,” Aguirre said. “There are people who will be dead in the future because there’s been no action by the Justice Department.”

Aguirre added that a lack of legal precedent for extending a defendant's probation shouldn’t stop prosecutors from trying to keep PG&E under federal court supervision for a longer period of time.

“That’s why we have judges,” Aguirre said. “We have judges because the lawyer’s job is to make the best case you can. If the law doesn’t permit it, it should permit it given the horrific record of PG&E.”

More than 100 people have died from fires believed to have been sparked by PG&E equipment over the last five years. In 2020, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter for failing to maintain equipment on a century-old transmission tower that failed and caused the deadliest blaze in California history.

On Tuesday, state fire investigators announced this past summer's 963,000-acre Dixie Fire, the second largest wildfire in state history, was caused when a PG&E distribution line made contact with a tree in rural Butte County.

PG&E did not immediately return a phone call requesting comment Thursday, but the utility said in a statement this week it has “become a fundamentally safer company” during its five-year probation term and is committed to continuing its work to make its electric system safer and prevent future wildfires.

PG&E provides natural gas and electricity services to 16 million customers in Northern and Central California.

As part of a 2020 deal with state regulators that allowed PG&E to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, an independent safety adviser is set to take over the role of a court-appointed federal monitor when the probation term ends.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...