BUSINESS

More allegations of improper utility contacts at the PUC

A controversial new email has emerged in a scandal involving the state Public Utilities Commission

A controversial new email message has emerged in an unfolding scandal involving allegedly improper contacts between Public Utilities Commissioner Mike Florio and the state's biggest power utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Then-PG&E vice president Brian Cherry, in a Jan 14 electronic memo to two other company executives, summarized his communications with Florio about which commissioner and administrative law judge would be assigned to an ongoing natural gas rate-setting proceeding.

According to Cherry, Florio said he was too busy to be the presiding commissioner on the case but promised to "mentor" fellow Commissioner Carla J. Peterman in coming up with a proposed decision.

Cherry wrote that Florio "even volunteered to do an alternate [decision] if we didn't like Carla's decision."

Cherry was fired in September after he filed an earlier email memo detailing his communications with PUC President Michael Peevey and other PUC senior staff that critics called overly "cozy."

Florio, who for decades served as a staff attorney with a ratepayers group, The Utility Reform Network, said Cherry's statements are not true.

"Mr. Cherry's internal summary of his conversations with me does not accurately reflect my own recollection of that same conversation," Florio said.

The alleged exchange -- at least as it was recounted by Cherry -- raises more concerns about "backdoor communications" between regulated utilities and the PUC, said Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for the ratepayer organization, known as TURN.

The group filed a formal request with the PUC for all communications between top utility executives and commissioners and senior staff at the regulatory agency.

PG&E, which has submitted hundreds of internal emails to satisfy various requests from regulators and the public, said it has made a strong effort to review all possible violations and make them known to the PUC and others.

Earlier this year, the PUC and PG&E released a stack of emails detailing potentially improper contacts. In one, Cherry briefed company executives on a 2010 dinner conversation he had with Peevey at the PUC president's Sonoma County coast vacation home.

According to Cherry's memo, Peevey dispensed public relations advice to the company and sought contributions for a political campaign opposing an initiative to weaken the state's efforts to curb global warming.

"We took quick, definitive action from the beginning," said PG&E spokesman Keith Stephens. "We self-reported violations, we held senior-level officers accountable and we are making significant changes designed to prevent this from happening again."

The company, he added, also is cooperating with law enforcement investigations. Both the U.S. attorney in San Francisco and the California attorney general's office reportedly are probing the allegations of so-called judge-shopping in the PG&E rate case.

Twitter: @MarcLifsher

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