SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In a surprisingly unified front, federal prosecutors on Tuesday joined Pacific Gas and Electric in urging a federal judge not to extend the embattled utility’s five-year probation term.
Prosecutors and PG&E each filed 6-page briefs responding to questions posed by U.S. District Judge William Alsup at an April 2 probation hearing. Alsup is overseeing PG&E’s probation in a criminal case related to the fatal 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion.
Alsup asked if PG&E’s probation term should be extended and whether semi-annual reports on its probation compliance should be made public.
U.S. Assistant Attorney Hallie Hoffman told Alsup that he might have authority to extend PG&E’s probation beyond the five-year maximum imposed at sentencing in January 2017.
However, the prosecutor also acknowledged that the legal landscape is murky. In 1989, the Ninth Circuit ruled in United States v. Tham that judges cannot impose a probation term beyond the statutory maximum. But the law has since been amended.
Prosecutors theorized the court may have the power to “revoke PG&E’s probation and impose a new probation term of up to five years, but there appears to be no binding authority on point.”
Given the legal uncertainties, Hoffman cautioned against extending PG&E’s probation at this time, adding Alsup could revisit the issue if PG&E violates its probation in the future.
In January, Alsup found PG&E violated its probation by failing to inform a probation officer about a prosecution and settlement with the Butte County District Attorney’s Office over the 150-acre Honey Fire in October 2017.
Beyond duration, Alsup also asked whether the court-appointed monitor overseeing PG&E’s compliance with its probation terms should make its semi-annual reports publicly available.
Finding another source of common ground, prosecutors agreed with PG&E’s position that publicly disclosing those reports could make PG&E employees less willing to provide open and candid answers to the monitor’s inquiries.
Information contained in the reports could be used as evidence in litigation against the utility giant.
“While the government sympathizes with the desire to find answers through the reports, the effect of doing so would be to sacrifice the monitor’s ability to have candid and fulsome conversations with, and receive complete information from, the defendant and its employees,” Hoffman wrote in her 6-page brief.
The monitor is obligated to make its final report on PG&E’s probation compliance available to the public.
Alsup said he will set a hearing date in the future to decide if the utility giant’s criminal sentence should be altered.
On April 2, Alsup imposed five new probation terms on the utility giant, including barring it from paying dividends to shareholders until it clears all wildfire hazards from around its power lines as required by state law.
In an emailed statement, PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty said the company remains committed to complying with its probation terms and all rules and regulations.
“As we have previously informed the court, PG&E understands that it must play a leading role in reducing the risk of wildfire throughout Northern and Central California,” Doherty said. “We will continue working with regulators, lawmakers, the court and our federal monitor to develop comprehensive, long-term safety solutions for the future.”