San Bruno city officials say never-before-seen emails demonstrate PG&E’s attempt to exert control over Mike Florio, a state public utilities commissioner tasked with regulating the company.
Florio was appointed to the commission by Governor Brown in 2011. For three decades before that, Florio was an attorney for the Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco-based utility watchdog.
While much of the focus about claims of improper email communications with PG&E have centered on former commission president Michael Peevey, Florio has also been under the microscope.
Internal commission emails revealed last year that he tried to help reassign a judge PG&E didn’t want for a case that would hike utility rates for customers. In another email, Florio joked with a PG&E executive that he “had become an apologist for PG&E.”
The newest internal emails were provided by PG&E to the city of San Bruno earlier this year, and city officials released the communications in an official filing with the commission on Tuesday. The city claims in the filing that PG&E’s communications with Florio violated rules that govern how utility companies and commissioners can communicate. The city found 42 violations.
Critics say the communications show more evidence of a cozy relationship between Florio and PG&E over a period of three years and demonstrate the company’s attempt to influence Florio’s decisions in PG&E proceedings.
“Clearly the emails demonstrate that PG&E is pleased with their ability to access the commissioner, to have a conversation with him and to work with him behind the scenes to further their interests,” said San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson.
The latest batch of emails show that in December 2011, PG&E executives discussed needing to “look for opportunities” to get CEO Tony Earley in front Florio “on San Bruno-related matters…” A PG&E gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno killed eight people a year earlier.
“That by itself strikes my attention. You need to put Tony Earley in front of Mike Florio in order to accomplish what?” Jackson said. “It really doesn’t make any sense. It can only make sense in a way that is not very palatable to us.”
In several communications from December 2012 PG&E officers discuss how to use Florio to help them change a proposed decision about a pipeline safety plan the company didn’t like.
The emails indicate that PG&E executive Brian Cherry met with Florio. “Your visit had a positive effect on the outcome for other things…” Florio wrote. Cherry forwarded Florio’s response to his colleagues. He wrote, “A hint at some hope…from Florio…”
“They are clearly and deliberately attempting to manipulate the process via their relationship with a commissioner.” Jackson said, “And that’s wrong.”
The city of San Bruno fought for the release last year of more than 65,000 other emails, which showed secret backroom deals between former commission president Peevey and the utility. Afterward, Peevey stepped down, PG&E fired three top executives including Cherry, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office launched a criminal investigation.
Jackson said Florio’s communications with PG&E are similar in nature to Peevey’s emails. Jackson and her colleagues at the city of San Bruno are calling for Florio’s removal from the commission.
“We remain concerned that as long as Commissioner Florio remains in place," Jackson said, "the legitimate efforts of the commission to undertake reform could be comprised."
Florio called San Bruno’s claims “a new low” in a statement released to the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit.
“San Bruno’s attack is merely the latest in a serious of allegations based on gossip and soundbites,” Florio wrote. “These allegations are tired, unfounded, and a distraction from the important work of the CPUC.”
He also defended his record as a consumer advocate and said his commitment has deepened since his appointment to the commission.
“Even a cursory review of my record on the California Public Utilities Commission reveals I have consistently acted independently in representing the public,” Florio wrote.
PG&E said any emails that represented rules violations have already been reported. Company spokesman Keith Stephens wrote in a statement that out of the tens of thousands of emails that have been released, the majority are “perfectly appropriate and unremarkable.”
“We will let the content of the emails speak for themselves,” Stephens wrote. “We are not going to speculate about motivations of the actions of people who are no longer in roles with the CPUC or the company or about events that may or may not have occurred.”
He also said “in some cases the communications were not appropriate” and the company held senior leaders accountable.
San Bruno’s mayor Jim Ruane plans to address the email communications in a news conference on the steps of San Bruno City Hall on Thursday morning.
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