SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation ordered the utility Wednesday to explain why it paid billions to stockholders and political candidates instead of using the money to fix known wildfire-safety problems with its power lines.
In a 2-page order, U.S. District Judge William Alsup ordered PG&E to respond to a bombshell Wall Street Journal report detailing how the company allegedly knew since 2013 that its high-voltage lines could spark wildfires but refused to upgrade them.
Alsup directed PG&E to submit up to 40 pages detailing paragraph-by-paragraph whether the Wall Street Journal’s reporting is accurate.
“The offender (PG&E) may not evade response by saying, for example, that it cannot know what documents the Wall Street Journal reviewed,” Alsup wrote. “The offender should know the extent to which the story is accurate or not since the report covers what PG&E knows internally.”
Alsup said PG&E has in the past responded to his questions by filing thousands of pages of records, leaving him to find “needles in the haystacks.” This time, the embattled utility must “provide a fresh, forthright statement owning up to the true extent of the Wall Street Journal report.”
Citing an ABC News report that PG&E donated millions to California politicians after its conviction for crimes related to the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, Alsup also ordered PG&E to detail every campaign contribution it has made since Jan. 1, 2017.
Alsup further demanded the utility explain “why those campaign contributions were more important than replacing or repairing the aging transmission lines” and reducing its backlog of hazardous trees that can fall on lines and spark fires.
Additionally, the judge directed PG&E to explain why it paid $5 billion in dividends to shareholders before it declared bankruptcy in January. Alsup demanded to know why that money was not used to fix known fire-risk problems.
PG&E said in a statement Wednesday it is still reviewing the court’s order, and that safety remains the company’s number-one priority.
“PG&E’s most important responsibility is the safety of our customers and the communities we serve,” PG&E spokesman James Noonan said. “We are aware of the court’s order and are currently reviewing it.”
Alsup ordered PG&E to respond to his demand for explanations by July 31.
In April, Alsup blocked PG&E from paying dividends to shareholders until it clears all fire hazards from around its power lines. That was added as a condition of PG&E’s probation in a criminal case related to the fatal 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion after Alsup found the company violated its probation by failing to alert a probation officer about a wildfire-related prosecution and settlement with the Butte County District Attorney’s Office.
In May, Alsup ordered PG&E directors and senior executives to visit San Bruno and the wildfire-ravaged town of Paradise as a condition of its probation. PG&E leaders toured Paradise on June 7, according to U.S. Probation Officer Jennifer Hutchings. A trip to San Bruno is also planned, but Hutchings declined to say when that will occur.
Alsup also rejected a proposal in May to extend PG&E’s criminal probation beyond the five-year maximum imposed at sentencing in January 2017. PG&E and prosecutors cautioned against an extension, arguing the law is not clear on whether Alsup can legally extend probation beyond the statutory maximum.
PG&E’s probation is set to expire in January 2022.