California lawmakers waded into an unfolding scandal at the Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday, questioning the PUC's relationship with the industry it regulates.
The State Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee held the first in a series of oversight hearings Tuesday afternoon, hearing from PUC President Michael Picker and other officials.
Committee Chairman Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego) immediately zeroed in on controversial emails that have surfaced in recent months that point to a cozy relationship between former PUC President Michael Peevey and the state's largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
"Emails suggest there's still an imbalance," he said, "in the area of whether utilities have access to our commission -- while those who do not have access to financial resources do not."
New PUC President Michael Picker told the committee, "This issue of emails is really troubling to me." He said that some clearly violate PUC rules. Others may be unethical but not illegal, he added, and some messages between between regulators and utility executives were overly familiar.
Members of the legislative panel were expected to question witnesses about relations between utility brass and PUC officials that have spurred federal and state law enforcement officials to open criminal probes.
Both the investigations and a series of hearings this month in the state Senate and Assembly are scrutinizing Peevey's 12-year tenure. He retired at the end of last year.
Picker was the first witness, and he also talked about PUC reforms underway including his new effort to revitalize public safety programs.
"These hearings will be a great opportunity for all members to hear from and speak with commissioners, stakeholders and interest groups," Hueso said.
The first hearing focused on hundreds of emails released by the commission and utilities that portray contacts between senior PUC officials, including Peevey, and utility executives.
The next Senate committee hearings are set for March 11 and March 17.
They are expected to deal with ensuring public access to PUC decision-making and upgrading utility infrastructure safety. The hearing came five years after a fatal PG&E pipeline explosion killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in the San Francisco bedroom community of San Bruno.
Separately, the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee has scheduled its own hearing for March 16.