PG&E Wants Feds’ Proof in Gas Explosion Case

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Pacific Gas and Electric called for the U.S. government to present more evidence supporting an indictment claiming that the utilities company willfully violated regulations that could have prevented the devastating 2010 explosion of a pipeline in San Bruno, Calif.
     The government indicted PG&E on 27 counts of violating the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act, alleging that the company willfully and knowing broke safety standards by not maintaining proper records, failing to identify threats and failing to fix parts of the pipeline.
     Eight people were killed in the explosion, which also leveled 38 homes. In April, PG&E was fined $1.6 billion for the blast — the largest penalty ever assessed against a utility by the California Public Utilities Commission.
     Judge Thelton Henderson heard from both sides in the federal criminal case on Monday morning, on the issue of PG&E’s request to compel the government to produce more discovery.
     Arguing for PG&E, attorney Steven Bauer said that since the case was “very novel” and “not well-trod,” it is the government’s responsibility to share the burden of proof.
     “The government has to prove that an engineer knowingly and willfully violated a regulation, and that whatever that engineer was thinking was not objectively reasonable,” he said.
     He also said that the government, “given what they’re prosecuting,” should have shared what it learned as soon as it started the investigation four years ago.
     “There have been documents held back, and there’s no declaration saying there’s a reason to hold them back. I think it’s just tactics,” Bauer said.
     Federal prosecutor Hallie Hoffman said that the government was not obliged to prove the “objectively reasonable” standard, since that standard applies only to civil cases and the case at issue is a criminal one.
     What she and the government must prove instead, she said, is a willful state of mind.
     For that reason, she said that PG&E’s requests for investigations into records of state agencies who oversaw the pipeline were “wholly irrelevant material.”
     Bauer disagreed, calling the government’s argument a “massive straw man to avoid a burden that they knew was coming.”
     “When you bring this kind of novel, massive case, this is to be expected,” he said.
     Henderson will hear from both sides again in October.
     Bauer is with Latham & Watkins in San Francisco. Hoffman is with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of California.

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