The executive PG&E only recently promoted to oversee gas operations suddenly left the company this week, the latest apparent management casualty of the ongoing scandal over the company’s 811 gas line locate and mark program.
In January, the corporate board of the bankrupt utility gave Jesus Soto Jr. an expanded role and a $75,000 raise while elevating him to the $575,000 a year post as a senior vice president over gas operations.
At the time, the company cited his “increasingly important role overseeing safety, compliance and risk for gas operations, as well as cybersecurity, physical security and supply chain for the entire company.”
Soto joined PG&E two years after the 2010 San Bruno gas line disaster as part of the utility’s effort to bolster safety.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit reported it was during Soto’s tenure over gas operations that workers felt pressure to satisfy management and ended up filing as many as a quarter of a million false reports to regulators. Soto had to account for his management of the 811 program to regulators in testimony last year.
The workers claimed their 811 inspections were performed within the two day deadline set by state law, but an independent audit firm found that 811 responses were in fact late.
That prompted regulators late last year to open a regulatory proceeding that could trigger millions of dollars in fines.
Regulators recently expanded that probe based on the allegations of another whistleblower, Katherin Mack, who went public with new allegations that pressured 811 workers took dangerous shortcuts to get their work done.
The workers, she alleged, regularly ventured into high voltage electrical vaults to hook up line marking gear – a job restricted to specially trained PG&E electrical crews. Mack’s allegations are now part of the state’s regulatory proceeding.
Through it all, the company has called the alleged conduct unacceptable and repeatedly pledged to beef up inspections and shake up the management of the program. However, Soto remained in charge until his resignation on Monday.
In a federal regulatory report filed Tuesday, PG&E did not elaborate on the circumstances of Soto’s departure, other than to say his executive severance will become part of the bankruptcy proceeding.
In a statement, a company spokesperson said: “Due to privacy, we do not comment on the reason or reasons why an employee leaves PG&E employment.
“What I can share with you is that nothing is more important than safety of our customers and the communities we serve. We wish to thank Jesus for his years of dedicated service.
“During his time with the company, PG&E’s Gas Operations made significant progress in operational safety and performance. Mel Christopher, who has extensive utility and safety experience, is leading the Gas organization on an interim basis, while the Company conduct a search for a permanent replacement.”
Christopher, 58, came to the company a year after the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion.
Last year, Nick Stavropoulos, a gas executive recruited after San Bruno who later became president of the company, retired — not long after being called to account by regulators for the management of the company’s 811 program. He denied wrongdoing and has said his departure was not related to the regulatory allegations.