San Bruno Explosion Was|’Relevant,’ Judge Says

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – References to the pipeline explosion that killed eight people and leveled a neighborhood will remain in an indictment against Pacific Gas and Electric, a federal judge ruled Monday.
     The ruling comes after a month-long battle in which PG&E tried to strike the mentions to the 2010 San Bruno explosion, claiming that the references were irrelevant to the obstruction charges and could prejudice the jury.
     U.S. District Thelton Henderson, though recognizing the potential for prejudice, denied PG&E’s motion. He said the court will craft jury instructions carefully as the case moves to trial.
     In July, PG&E was charged in a superseding indictment with obstructing a federal investigation into the pipeline explosion and with 27 counts of violating the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act.
     Two months later, PG&E asked the court to strike “irrelevant or prejudicial allegations” regarding the explosion. PG&E claimed that references to the explosion – the subject of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation – were unnecessary to the indictment, because prosecutors need to prove only that there is an ongoing investigation. It also said that there’s no causal relationship between the alleged pipeline safety violations and the explosion.
     PG&E attorney Steve Bauer made this comparison in court: “If it was sunny all last week and the stock market goes up … does it mean the stock market went up because it was sunny?”
     But Henderson sided with federal prosecutors , who said that “there is no question” the explosion is relevant to the indictment.
     The subject of the NTSB investigation is “necessary to prove PG&E’s intent to obstruct the ongoing investigation,” Henderson wrote in his Sept. 29 order.
     In response to PG&E’s concerns that the references will create pretrial prejudice in the jury and media, the judge wrote: “Striking such references from the entire indictment would be detrimental to an understanding of the other criminal allegations.”
     Henderson noted that it’s “unreasonable” to believe that striking references to the allegations would affect the way the media report on the subject.
     “The press has already made the connection between the explosion and this prosecution,” he wrote.
     The judge also denied PG&E’s request to strike what it called an “enormous” proposed fine of more than $1 billion.
     Henderson said PG&E’s logic is flawed when it argues to strike both the fine and references to the explosion.
     “PG&E simultaneously complains that the factual allegations for the increased fine are too vague, while also complaining that even minimal references to the San Bruno explosion in the indictment are irrelevant and prejudicial,” the judge wrote. “Consequently, PG&E’s position demands further reference to the explosion, while PG&E implores the court to remove all references to the explosion. PG&E cannot have it both ways.”

%d bloggers like this: