PG&E Fights Back as Prosecutors Rest Case

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Federal prosecutors Thursday rested their case against Pacific Gas and Electric and PG&E tried to rebut claims that it obstructed an investigation of the deadly 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion.
While cross examining the government’s final witness, PG&E attorney Margaret Tough showed documents intended to poke holes in the government’s claim that PG&E refused to cooperate with a federal investigation.
PG&E faces 12 counts of violating federal pipeline safety regulations and one count of obstructing an investigation of the explosion of Line 132 in San Bruno, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes on Sept. 9, 2010.
On Wednesday, National Transportation Safety Board accident investigator Ravindra Chhatre told jurors that PG&E violated procedure by interviewing witnesses before they spoke to investigators. He also said PG&E attorneys impeded the NTSB’s fact-finding mission by raising excessive objections during witness interviews.
Tough showed Chhatre a party agreement PG&E signed in September 2010 after the explosion.
“There’s nothing that says lawyers can’t be involved in the investigation, right?” Tough asked.
The document contained a “Right to Representation” section and language stating that party members must follow the directions of NTSB officials investigating the accident.
Chhatre said he told PG&E not to pre-interview witnesses and “contaminate” their testimony.
“Where does it say in the regulations that no one can talk to witnesses?” Tough asked.
She asked whether Chhatre informed PG&E that the FBI had contacted him within five days of the explosion about opening a criminal investigation.
“No,” Chhatre replied.
PG&E also tried to counter the suggestion that it delayed turning over a 1988 leak repair record for Line 132 until May 2011, as the NTSB was wrapping up its investigation.
In a letter to the NTSB, PG&E said the record had been buried in a job file discovered at its San Carlos office on Sept. 18, 2010, but that the document was not identified as relevant to the investigation until May 5, 2011.
“I personally did not buy anything in this letter,” Chhatre told the jury Wednesday.
Tough asked Chhatre on Thursday why he chose not to interview anyone on a list of employees and contractors involved in the 1988 leak repair that PG&E had provided the NTSB.
“PG&E already talked to these people,” Chhatre said. “Once PG&E contaminated these witnesses, I saw no reason to interview them. I had a lot of questions in my mind that they were told what answers to give.”
After Chhatre concluded his testimony Thursday, the government told U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson that it was resting its case.
The utility company then called its first witness, Brian Daubin, a PG&E employee in charge of handling data responses after the San Bruno explosion.
Daubin told the jury that he was never asked to be dishonest or to mislead the NTSB.
“Our goal, we wanted to get to the root cause of the accident,” Daubin said.
PG&E called a second witness, David Harrison, on Thursday to testify about the company’s pressure strength test records.
The utility company has not revealed how many witnesses it plans to call but suggested it may rest its defense case within a few days.
The trial started on June 17 and was expected to last six to eight weeks.
PG&E faces a potential $562 million fine if convicted on 12 counts of violating U.S. Pipeline Safety Act regulations and obstructing a federal investigation.
Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E $1.6 billion for the San Bruno pipeline blast, the largest penalty ever assessed against a utility company in the state’s history.

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