The lead attorneys probing a deadly pipeline explosion for California regulators have abruptly quit the investigation, putting the integrity of the probe in jeopardy, a San Bruno city official said Wednesday.
The four California Public Utilities Commission lawyers removed themselves from the matter earlier this week, just as the agency is set to decide a fine for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which owns the pipeline, City Manager Connie Jackson said.
Jackson called on California Attorney General Kamala Harris and the state Legislature to examine the reasons behind the abrupt departures.
The CPUC disputes the claim. The CPUC said in a statement, "contrary to allegations by the City of San Bruno, no CPUC lawyer was fired or resigned. Some of the lawyers working on the penalty consideration cases have asked to be reassigned to other matters, and their requests have been granted."
The lawyers were the commission's main experts on the blast, and having them off the case will weaken the state's ability to prosecute PG&E, said Joe Como, acting director of the commission's Division of Ratepayer Advocates, the independent watchdog arm of the utility regulator.
"I'm just suspicious that there is something that is going on that shouldn't be. Maybe the lawyers have a very different opinion than the commission,'' Como said. "The company may get away with a better decision in their favor.''
The commission's legal team has spent more than two years investigating PG&E safety lapses before the Sept. 9, 2010, blast that killed eight people, destroyed 38 homes and laid waste to the suburban neighborhood overlooking the San Francisco Bay.
"Those attorneys worked on the briefs that the CPUC will use as its basis for holding PG&E accountable,'' Jackson said. "This absolutely will jeopardize the integrity of the process that has gone on for the last 2 1/2 years, and San Bruno cannot stand still and let that happen.''
Agency investigators recently called for PG&E to be fined $2.25 billion.
The proposal, however, would allow the company to claim the penalty as a tax deduction. Commission spokeswoman Terrie Prosper confirmed that the four attorneys "asked to be reassigned to other matters, and their requests have been granted.''
She did not immediately respond to phone messages or emails seeking details as to why the attorneys were off the case.