PUC President Michael Picker calls emails with utilities 'troubling'

New PUC president testifies before a state Senate panel about communications between the PUC and utilities

Emails portraying overly chummy and questionable contacts between California utilities and state regulators are "troubling," the new president of the Public Utilities Commission told lawmakers Tuesday.

His comments came as lawmakers discussed reports of extensive communications that critics say violated judicial-type rules aimed at preventing one-sided communications. These rules are intended to allow all parties in a dispute to hear and participate in all aspects of a dispute.

Decisions should be "based on the record developed in public," PUC President Michael Picker testified at a hearing of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, and not in private dinners, meetings and messages.

Such communications are at the heart of a growing scandal — and federal and state criminal investigations — involving the PUC under the leadership of former President Michael Peevey, who retired under pressure at the end of last year.

The one-sided dealings, both online and in person, "seem to be fairly skewed" to favor utilities and have contributed to "an erosion of confidence" in the PUC by ratepayers, said committee Chairman Ben Hueso (D-San Diego).

"Deals are being struck behind the scenes," he said.

"Is this the right way to do business?" Hueso asked Picker. "There needs to be something that leads to more transparency."

Picker and the commission's interim executive director, Timothy Sullivan, said they are moving to tighten PUC rules against such improper communications. They've hired an outside attorney to survey "best practices" at other state utility regulators and are drafting an ethics code of conduct for commissioners and top staff.

PUC staff should not be emailing to "schedule lunches and bringing bottles of wine," Sullivan said. "We need to make sure this is not done again."

Picker, a former energy aide to Govs. Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, told the committee that he wanted to make changes at the PUC by fostering an atmosphere of collegiality and accountability.

He made it clear that he wouldn't follow Peevey's management style, which critics described as domineering.

"I'm trying not to be that kind of strong president," he said, "the way that the previous president was."

Hueso's committee is expected to continue peppering PUC officials with questions about improper utility contacts at more hearings set for March 11 and March 17. The state Assembly's Utilities and Commerce Committee plans to hold a separate but similar hearing March 16.

marc.lifsher@latimes.com

Twitter: @MarcLifsher

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