Former executive director files lawsuit against the California Public Utilities Commission
A bitter falling-out between top officials at the California Public Utilities Commission and its former executive director is heading to court.
Attorneys for Alice Stebbins have filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court, alleging she was fired after she and her top lieutenants investigated mismanagement at the commission. In particular, Stebbins said more than $200 million in uncollected money from utilities has stacked up over the years.
The suit alleged that Stebbins lost her job “in retaliation for her refusal to close down (or slow down) ongoing investigations and reviews of the CPUC’s financial and record-keeping practices.”
Agency officials said in an email that the commission “will defend itself in the appropriate venue against this frivolous lawsuit.”
Stebbins had served as the commission’s executive director — essentially, the chief of staff — starting in 2018. She was ousted following a unanimous vote by the five commissioners on Aug. 31.
The commission said the firing came after a State Personnel Board report criticized Stebbins for hiring choices she had made that appeared to favor colleagues who used to work with her at the California Air Resources Board and the State Water Resources Control Board.
The report alleged that Stebbins narrowed the applicant pool to the advantage of candidates she preferred, increased the salary of a less-qualified candidate and provided inaccurate information about a salary increase to the California Department of Human Resources.
But Stebbins and her attorneys said the personnel board report was just “a pretext intended to cover up” actions by President Marybel Batjer and other commissioners to stop Stebbins “from doing her job — to fix the broken CPUC.”
The commission, which oversees the state’s investor-owned utilities and telecommunications companies, has often been criticized as being too cozy with the companies it regulates.
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The suit takes particular aim at Batjer, who was tapped as commission president by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019, succeeding Michael Picker.
In a news release, Stebbins’ attorneys said Batjer “decided to personally engineer what she called a ‘firing offense,’ relying on help from people [Batjer] formerly supervised at the State Personnel Board.” The attorneys said the State Personnel Board report “lacked credibility and was riddled with inaccuracies.”
The $200 million in uncollected revenue amounted to, according to Stebbins’ attorneys, the commission “essentially [setting] up a line of credit, with no interest and no penalty” for the companies it is charged with regulating.
During the Aug. 31 hearing, Batjer said the $200-million figure was incorrect — that there was $49.9 million in outstanding funds but that “large portions” had not been collected because appeals made by utilities keep the money from being deposited until each case is resolved.
Commissioners have the “express statutory authority to replace the Executive Director when he or she loses the confidence” of them, commission spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said in an email.
“The allegation that Ms. Stebbins was dismissed for finding alleged budget irregularities flies in the face of the clear public action taken by the CPUC,” Prosper said. “At no time has the CPUC discouraged any employee, including Ms. Stebbins when she was Executive Director, from coming forward with concerns and/or fixing problems.”
The lawsuit made no mention of a cache of text messages from Batjer and other commissioners discussing the Stebbins case leading up to the Aug. 31 firing. Stebbins’ lawyers had earlier said the texts violated the state’s Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act. The commission said there was no violation.
Stebbins seeks lost wages, attorneys’ fees and other damages, but the suit did not specify an amount.
Based in San Francisco, the commission operates with an annual budget of about $1.6 billion and employs some 1,400 workers.
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