Thomas D. Elias

Thomas Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column, appearing twice weekly in 93 newspapers around California, with circulation of over 2.2 million.

No political endorsement ever seemed more innocuous and expected than Gov. Jerry Brown’s backing of state Attorney General Kamala Harris for the U.S. Senate seat now held by the retiring Barbara Boxer.

Like Boxer, both are Democrats. Harris was Brown’s successor as head of the state’s Justice Department. Each is part of the Northern California Democratic group that controls most major statewide offices, including both California seats in the Senate, plus the governor’s office, the lieutenant governor’s slot and the attorney general’s seat. Rarely has one region held so much power so firmly in California.

But there may have been more to the Brown endorsement than met the eye.

Harris’ department is currently conducting a criminal investigation of the state Public Utilities Commission’s conduct of major cases stemming from the failure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the multi-fatal 2010 explosion of a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. natural gas pipeline in San Bruno. Not only are PUC commissioners the most powerful of Brown’s appointees outside the judiciary, but he cannot remove them once they’ve been sworn in, as he can every other person he appoints, except judges.

Brown has maintained steady contact with his PUC appointees, mostly via email and telephone.

Public records requests caused more than 100,000 PUC emails to be disclosed, now available on the website PUCpapers.org, created by the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group.

Conspicuously absent from these now-readable and -searchable documents are more than 60 emails between the PUC and Brown or his office (without seeing them, no one can be certain who said what) exchanged around the time of the PUC’s decision to dun Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. customers for about 70 percent of the $4.7 billion it will eventually cost to close down San Onofre, which failed because of a blunder by Edison, the plant’s operator and 80 percent owner.

Handwritten notes found in a Justice Department search of the La Canada-Flintridge home of former PUC President Michael Peevey showed the San Onofre settlement closely matched a deal hatched in a secret meeting between Peevey and Edison executives during an industry conference in Poland. (The PUC recently reopened its San Onofre settlement case.)

Former San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre, now a consumer advocate, first demanded the Brown emails in an early April public records request, but Harris stepped in, saying she would rule on whether Brown is entitled to some kind of executive privilege. This simple yes-or-no decision is still in the works.

So Brown was endorsing the very official who had already waited months to decide whether he needs to make emails public. Until the emails can be widely read, the public cannot know if they demonstrate some sort of untoward conduct.

Now, Brown loudly and enthusiastically endorses an official who might possibly stand between him and embarrassing revelations. She happily accepted his backing. At the very least, this looked like a conflict of interest.

Meanwhile, Harris’ office maintains it has set up a hermetic seal between her department’s investigation of the PUC and anyone involved in deciding the email issue.

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“The attorney general … has more than 1,100 attorneys who represent state agencies on a wide array of matters,” said her spokesman David Beltran. “No government agency, and no public utilities company, is above the law, which means all investigations go where the evidence takes us.”

But by law and common practice, the attorney general represents the governor in any criminal case relating to his official activity. So the official determining whether the public can see whether the governor has done something wrong is also his defense attorney. Does that pass the smell test?

So far, none of this has become a major issue in the Senate campaign matching Harris and longtime Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, both Democrats.

But it would be unwise for Harris to believe that will continue, not with millions of Californians paying billions of dollars as a result of the San Onofre settlement, as it now stands.

Nor should the so far Teflon-coated Brown expect to be untouched by all this, if the emails eventually become public and show him favoring utilities over consumers.

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com.

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