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Consumer group report blasts California Gov. Jerry Brown over his ties to utilities

Consumer group report blasts California Gov. Jerry Brown over his ties to utilities
Gov. Jerry Brown would have to fill one of the state's most powerful and influential positions if California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris wins the race for the U.S. Senate. (Randy Pench / MCT)

A Santa Monica consumer group is criticizing Gov. Jerry Brown for his ties to utilities and other companies that rely on fossil fuels, linking almost $10 million in contributions from 26 oil, gas and power companies to decisions by Brown administration officials that directly benefited the donors.

The governor's office says political contributions have not influenced his policies, and his environmental record speaks for itself. Allies said the report by Consumer Watchdog misses the point of Brown's record, although some advocates said the study raises troubling questions.

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Many of the political donations examined came within days or weeks of key policy decisions, the report said.

In one case, Southern California Edison gave $130,000 to the state Democratic Party on the same day that then-Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey took an undisclosed meeting with an Edison executive in Warsaw, setting in motion a $4.7-billion deal for closure of the failed San Onofre nuclear plant, charging customers 70% of the damage.

Peevey, a former Edison executive who stepped down as commission president in December 2014, is at the center of an ongoing criminal investigation by the state attorney general's office into backroom deal-making between regulators and utility executives.

In response to the Consumer Watchdog report, Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said: "The governor's leadership on climate is unmatched. These claims are downright cuckoo."

Westrup cited a host of Brown policies and decisions since the governor was elected in 2010 that were aimed at protecting the environment.

Among other things, Brown committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels. He also pushed to generate half the state's electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and to get 1.5 million zero-emission cars on California roads by 2025.

The state's three largest electricity monopolies — Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric parent Sempra Energy — gave almost $6 million of the $9.8 million in contributions identified by Consumer Watchdog.

Sempra Energy officials said they strongly disagreed with the premise of the report. The company considers working with policymakers to be an important and necessary part of the business, they said.

More than $4.4 million of that total was given to the Democratic Party between 2011 and 2014, a time when two of Brown's top aides worked for the political party. State Democratic Party leaders subsequently contributed $4.7 million to Brown's campaign, the report said.

"The evidence points to Brown and his operatives using the Democratic Party as a political slush fund to receive contributions in amounts greater than permitted to his candidate committee, and masking money from unpopular energy entities," the report said.

The group's report looked at a limited slice of campaign contributions to support its conclusions, leaving out two significant factors.

For one thing, utilities and oil companies also give to Republicans in large amounts. And green interests also support Brown and the Democrats.

Sempra Energy gave $115,000 to the California Democratic Party and $115,000 to the California Republican Party and the state Republican Leadership Fund in 2015.

In the last six months of 2015, Pacific Gas & Electric donated $305,000 to the state Democratic Party and almost $200,000 to its Republican counterpart.

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Edison International, parent company of Southern California Edison, gave $200,000 to the California Republican Party on May 10, on top of the $85,200 it has given since last August. The company donated $320,000 to the state Democratic Party over the same period.

University of California professor Daniel Kammen said the Consumer Watchdog findings missed the point. He said the Brown administration turned the idea of climate-friendly economic growth into a reality and created the most progressive renewable-power standard on the planet.

"Overall, I do think that this [report] really gets the message quite wrong," said Kammen, who runs a renewable power lab at UC Berkeley. "Gov. Brown has been a very important leader who has accomplished a tremendous amount in the clean energy transition."

Former San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye, who cut her political teeth as an activist fighting ocean pollution and other contaminants, said the report shows that Brown may be more interested in supporting donors than promoting ecology.

"The report raised serious concerns about whether the governor was as concerned about helping the environment as he was about helping his friends," Frye said.

Under Brown, the report said, state regulators approved more than $130 billion in rate hikes for customers of the three largest investor-owned utilities in California — Edison, SDG&E and PG&E. Sempra's stock price has more than doubled since Brown was elected, it added.

The report also noted that several top Brown administration officials previously worked for PG&E and that his sister, former California State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, serves on the Sempra Energy board of directors.

Consumer Watchdog said it spent four months sifting through previously released records, news reports and other public documents to compile the 44-page study.

Jeff McDonald writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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