Taking pains to avoid attacking the jury that convicted the company last week, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. wants the federal judge to overturn its convictions for obstructing the federal probe into the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion and five pipeline safety counts.
“Let us be clear: We are not asking this court to reweigh the evidence, and we are not being critical of the jury’s work,” the defense motion lodged Tuesday stressed.
“The jury had the unenviable task of figuring out on its own how to interpret highly technical regulations littered with vague and undefined terms, and what to make of days of testimony aimed at proving some amorphous organizational collective willfulness not cognizable under the law.”
The motion asks for a hearing on Oct. 11 before U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson to argue that he should overturn the Aug. 9 verdicts as legally unsubstantiated.
Should he uphold the verdict, Henderson will be tasked with determining how to punish the company. The burden was significantly lifted for the company when, before the verdict, federal prosecutors inexplicably walked away from seeking more than a half-billion dollars from the company for the criminal counts. The current maximum fine stands at $3 million.
In asking Henderson to review the verdicts, PG&E rehashed many of the same arguments its lawyers made unsuccessfully to the jury.
“On each of these counts — as a matter of law — the government failed to meet its burden to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt,” PG&E argued to Henderson. "The prosecution's case was built on “novel legal theories in the face of unrebutted evidence disproving its allegations.”
“Now is the time,” the motion concludes, “to dispose of the few remaining counts in this unprecedented prosecution.”
Among other arguments, PG&E lawyers say the federal obstruction charge was unproven. The count revolves around PG&E’s April 6, 2011, letter to the lead investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
In it, PG&E told federal investigators that the company never in fact implemented a written policy the company gave federal investigators weeks earlier.
That disputed policy asserted that the company intended to ignore regulations that required inspections any time pressure surged above allowable levels on old, at-risk pipelines.
PG&E asserted it would require costly inspections only when pressure surged more than 10 percent above allowable levels.
“At trial, the government failed to prove that any individual had the necessary corrupt intent,” in submitting that letter, the defense argued to Henderson.
“Who acted with an improper purpose in sending the April 6, 2011, correction letter to the NTSB? The government has no answer.”
The defense wants the judge to overturn the five other counts as unproven, arguing that the government testimony in the case was at best ambiguous and at worst contradictory.
“The government’s evidence at trial was insufficient at every turn,” the defense team concluded in the motion.
Henderson, the defense asserts, now must assess the state of the evidence to legally determine whether prosecutors met the “beyond-a-reasonable-doubt burden. The defendant respectfully moves for judgment of acquittal.”