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Thomas D. Elias: California Public Utilities Commission getting key roles despite scandals, conflicts

Thomas D. Elias: California Public Utilities Commission getting key roles despite scandals, conflicts

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California Power Shutoff

FILE - In this July 23, 2019, file photo, Marybel Batjer, of the California Public Utilities Commission, speaks during a news conference as Gov. Gavin Newsom looks on in Sacramento, Calif. California's utility regulator is issuing a series of sanctions against Pacific Gas and Electric for what it calls "failures in execution" during the largest planned power shut-off in state history to avoid wildfires. Batjer said Monday, Oct. 14, 2019, the utility needs to have a goal of restoring power within 12 hours instead of its current 48 hours, minimize the scale of future outages and better communicate with the public and local officials. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

No public agency in California history has a rap sheet quite like that of the California Public Utilities Commission:

It consistently cozies up to the utility companies it regulates, it has been criminally investigated (a probe that remains nominally open) for rewarding Southern California Edison Co.’s blunder that shut down a nuclear power plant paid for by customers, it has never reliably tracked utility company use of maintenance fees paid by customers for more than 60 years. That has meant billions of dollars employed for other things, including executive bonuses.

The PUC has even spent customer money on criminal defense lawyers to protect commissioners from potential consequences of their illegal actions favoring utilities. It allegedly supervises companies like Pacific Gas & Electric Co., but acts completely powerless when public safety power shutoffs are botched.

And yet, governors and the state Legislature continue placing immense trust in this benighted agency, which has never demonstrated it is trustworthy.

When a new state law passed in 2018 demanding electric companies spend several billions to modernize and harden their transmission lines and trim trees and brush around them, the PUC got supervisory authority.

When the Legislature last summer passed the highly questionable and yet-to-be-litigated Assembly Bill 1054 setting up a state Wildfire Fund for which consumers will be dunned $13.5 billion over 15 years to cover damage caused by failing utility wires, the PUC had final say over whether and when those charges would be levied.

As with most PUC decisions, that one was greased. The commission approved the charge to consumers without even a single public hearing where opponents could be heard.

Most PUC members and agency presidents who perpetrated the majority of this commission’s past misdeeds have departed, stepping aside quietly in hopes their actions will never be punished.

Even Michael Peevey, former commission president and onetime chief executive of Edison has yet to be charged for his part in the scandal surrounding allotment of expenses around closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. His role was proven via notes on a hotel napkin found when authorities searched his La Canada-Flintridge home.

Now there’s an apparent new PUC conflict of interest, this time involving the agency’s newest president, Marybel Batjer, hailed as a model bureaucrat on her appointment by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

A lawsuit filed by consumer attorney Michael Aguirre, a former elected city attorney of San Diego, cites records disclosed by Newsom’s office in response to a Public Records Act demand. They show Batjer “played a major role in drafting AB 1054.”

By odd coincidence, Newsom on the same day both signed that bill and appointed Batjer, previously head of the state Government Operations Agency, to her new job. The new law gives companies like Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric some financial security following admissions and other evidence that their equipment sparked many huge wildfires over the last three years.

At the same time, since Batjer helped write the bill authorizing the Wildfire Fund, it was no surprise when less than two months after her appointment, the PUC approved billing consumers for the majority of its money without any hearing or much of a formal proceeding.

No previous PUC president was ever so brazen in approving a charge essentially rewarding electric companies for their past practice of misusing customer money intended to maintain power lines and other equipment in a way that could have prevented wildfires.

The commission did this while there was plenty of evidence that utility infrastructure degenerated while funds intended to keep it up to snuff were spent elsewhere.

All of which points to the need for preventing future conflicts of interest like Batjer’s – a person in a highly political role who played a major role in creating a new law then appointed to implement it. This does not pass the smell test.

The two best ways to stop this kind of questionable regulation are either to take power away from the PUC or make the agency elective, with commissioners answerable to the public that pays for their actions, as they are in Texas and some other states.

Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column. He is author of the book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.”

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