PG&E reports strong yearly profit despite unfolding PUC scandal

Ex-PUC President Michael Peevey, who retired under a cloud, is being feted at a San Francisco tribute dinner

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. on Tuesday reported strong earnings for the just-ended year, even though the beleaguered company said it experienced "a disappointing setback" with state regulators.

The problems center on an unfolding scandal at the California Public Utilities Commission and a series of improper and possibly illegal communications between top executives at PG&E and Michael Peevey, the PUC's president until December. Critics say Peevey used such informal sessions to overstep his role of being an impartial regulator by making managerial decisions for the regulated utilities.

Now that he has retired under a cloud, Peevey is being feted Thursday by fellow regulators, energy industry executives and environmentalists at a tribute dinner at the historic Merchant Exchange Building, Julia Morgan Ballroom, in San Francisco.

The emcee for the $250-per-person night is Willie L. Brown Jr., the former mayor of San Francisco and longtime speaker of the California Assembly. Money raised by the dinner is going to the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.

Peevey supporters will be on hand "to celebrate Mr. Peevey's positive accomplishments which are enormous in the areas of energy, water and telecommunications regulation," said Gary Ackerman, executive director of the Western Power Trading Forum, which represents electricity generators in 13 Western states. "The fact that he is marred by this recent release of emails is unfortunate."

Protesters from utility ratepayer and anti-nuclear-power activists are also expected at the Peevey event, sponsored by former PUC Commissioner Susan Kennedy and a Mill Valley, Calif., public relations executive, Don Solem.

"It's bad taste," said Michael Aguirre, a San Diego consumer attorney. "It's celebrating someone who has not shown integrity."

Peevey's relationship with the San Francisco-based power company is under scrutiny by both the state attorney general's office and the U.S. Department of Justice. Investigators recently served a search warrant on Peevey's La Cañada Flintridge home.

PG&E's email and personal communications with Peevey over the last five years appeared to have violated PUC rules against providing a forum for one party in a pending legal, rate or enforcement proceeding without granting equal opportunity to adversaries in the case. Some of the discussions took place at Peevey's vacation home on the Sonoma County coast and at restaurants and hotels around the state.

PG&E Chief Executive Tony Earley in a statement Tuesday said his utility had "serious regret" about the contacts that were not reported to the PUC as required by law. Since then, he said, his company has taken "taken swift and decisive action to address this serious matter and to avoid ex parte violations in the future."

Referring to the 2010 fatal explosion in the Bay Area city of San Bruno, Earley urged state regulators to "resolve gas pipeline investigations that have been ongoing for more than four years."

In a cautionary note, PG&E advised investors and analysts about a number of uncertainties on its horizon, including civil and criminal probes by the PUC and law enforcement agencies, a federal criminal prosecution of the utility, a pending natural gas rate-setting case and a possible $1-billion-plus fine related to the San Bruno explosion.

In its new financial filing, PG&E said it had net income after dividends on preferred stock of $1.4 billion in 2014, up from $814 million the previous year. Last year's results could have been even better, the company said, had PG&E not spent $349 million on one-time upgrades to its natural gas delivery system in the wake of the San Bruno disaster.

PG&E isn't alone when it comes to possibly improper communications with state regulators. On Monday, Southern California Edison, California's second-largest private utility, filed a notice with the PUC of a 2013 meeting between an executive and Peevey at a hotel in Poland. The two were attending an energy and environmental conference.

Edison said it might have violated PUC rules by discussing plans to restart the idled San Onofre nuclear power plant. Notes about San Onofre's failed replacement steam generators, handwritten on Bristol Hotel, Warsaw, stationery, were seized by law enforcement when they searched Peevey's home late last month.

PUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said Tuesday that her agency is "evaluating any next steps after receiving the ex parte notice by Edison yesterday."

Edison's revelation of the San Onofre meeting in Poland prompted John Geesman, an attorney for an anti-nuclear-power organization and former member of the California Energy Commission, to file a brief at the PUC. It asked the PUC to order Edison to turn over all communications it has had with the PUC about the faulty steam generating tubes that forced the permanent closure of San Onofre.

"This is a parallel remedy," Geesman said, to what the PUC has "done with respect to PG&E in the San Bruno disaster."

marc.lifsher@latimes.com

Twitter: @MarcLifsher

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