In a candid interview, the new president of the California Public Utilities Commission opened up to the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit about taking over the agency that has been rocked by scandal and taken hits to its credibility.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Michael Picker said, “this is probably the most frustrating job I have ever had.”
Picker was appointed by Governor Brown in December after a lengthy government career including stints in the Governor’s Office, the Treasurer’s Office and with the Mayor of Sacramento. He replaced Michael Peevey, the polarizing former president, who stepped down late last year after an email scandal led to ongoing criminal investigations by the U.S. Attorney, the state’s attorney general and a federal grand jury.
The agency made public more than 65,000 emails exposing details of its close relationship with executives from Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E). Many say the emails show a culture where PG&E executives had inappropriate access to the very people who were supposed to regulate them.
“I can read the emails, they are troubling and distressing,” Picker said. “But I will leave it to someone better qualified than me to say whether there has actually been a crime or some kind of violation.”
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Picker’s decision to answer questions from the press is a stark contrast to his predecessor. Peevey regularly declined interviews and often worked to avoid public accountability. Picker called Peevey’s legacy “complicated” and when asked whether taking over for Peevey required big shoes or small shoes, Picker answered that it takes “different” shoes.
“I’m tennis shoes,” he said.
Previous NBC Bay Area investigations have raised questions about perks Peevey accepted such as free travel to exotic destinations. Picker said he has not and will not take trips funded by special interest groups and doesn’t feel the need to participate in luxury travel. Peevey’s critics have said the travel he accepted, which totaled more than $160,000 in value, crossed an ethical line. Picker said he won’t go that far.
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“You know, I stumble every day here,” Picker said. “But I think that’s one I can avoid.”
Under Peevey’s presidency, critics accused the CPUC of acting like a lapdog instead of a watchdog to powerful utility companies, including PG&E. Federal officials even concluded that the CPUC, the agency charged with setting the safety standard for utilities, contributed to the deadly 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion.
After repeated gas line blasts and a 2013 attack on the power grid in San Jose, Picker suggested earlier this year that PG&E may be too big to operate safe gas and electric systems.
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“I think we need to hold them accountable,” Picker said. “And if we find they are unable to perform then we’ll have to figure out what we can legally do. Nobody knows what it would take to revoke PG&E’s franchises.”
Picker has made internal changes to the agency. He ordered CPUC leaders to develop a code of conduct and hold email training for staff. He also formed a team to examine tens of thousands of emails sent by CPUC staffers to industry employees for violations in agency regulations.
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“I think that we need to actually begin to provide very clear direction to our staff and we need to press that down into clear direction and accountability for the utilities,” Picker said.
He also addressed the need to modernize the 104-year-old agency and equip it with updated technology. Currently, the agency doesn’t have the IT capacity to keep records up to date or access inspection forms from the field.
“The PUC is really kind of stale and isolated in many respects,” Picker said. “It has not kept up with the times. A lot of smart people, but they are better than the organization they’re in.”
The new president says he wants the reforms to go beyond superficial repairs, and that California ratepayers should start noticing a difference in about two years. Picker acknowledged that it will take time to completely rebuild an agency that has been unraveling for years. When asked about the legacy he wants to leave at the CPUC, Picker responded, “I think they should look back and see what the organization has done and not even notice that somebody new is in my chair.”
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