Newsletter: PG&E’s involuntary manslaughter plea

The logo for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. appears above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
The logo for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. appears above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, June 17, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

“Is your client prepared to enter a plea?” Judge Michael Deems asked from his perch in a nearly empty Chico courtroom.

“He is — it is, your honor,” the lawyer for the state’s largest utility said, correcting himself as he spoke. Because it wasn’t a person confessing responsibility for killing 84 people in this Butte County courtroom, but rather an entire company — in this case, the beleaguered energy giant responsible for providing power to approximately 16 million Northern Californians.

On Tuesday morning, PG&E CEO Bill Johnson formally entered guilty pleas on behalf of the company for 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the devastating 2018 Camp fire, which was blamed on the company’s crumbling electrical grid.

[Read the story: “PG&E pleads guilty to 84 deaths from 2018 Northern California wildfire” in the Los Angeles Times]


The deadliest wildfire in modern California history left at least 84 people dead and nearly destroyed the town of Paradise. PG&E’s equipment was found to have caused the blaze.

The bankrupt utility had already announced the settlement agreement with the Butte County district attorney’s office via a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission back in March, but the formal proceedings came during a dramatic court hearing that appeared to be “designed to publicly shame the nation’s largest utility for neglecting its infrastructure,” according to the Associated Press.

With only about a dozen other masked participants and viewers in the courtroom due to the coronavirus, the judge read each of the 84 victims’ names separately as Johnson entered individual involuntary manslaughter pleas on behalf of the company. “Guilty, your honor,” the CEO said again and again over the course of 26½ minutes. Although it wasn’t visible in the Zoom video stream of the hearing, photos of the dead were projected on a large screen as the judge read each name.

Family members of those killed in the Camp fire are expected to appear before the court on Wednesday, and the utility will be officially sentenced on Thursday or Friday.

As the New York Times noted, some survivors of the fire “have criticized the plea agreement as a slap on the wrist for PG&E.” Under the agreement with the Butte County district attorney’s office, the utility will pay a maximum $3.5 million fine plus $500,000 in costs. The company has separately agreed to pay $25.5 billion to settle claims with individual victims, insurers and public agencies from recent fires as part of its bankruptcy restructuring plan.

What comes next for PG&E?

The company, which has been in bankruptcy for more than a year, is seeking approval from Bankruptcy Court for its turnaround plan by the end of the month, ahead of a state deadline of June 30 so that it can participate in the state’s wildfire insurance fund. State regulators approved the reorganization plan in late May after the company agreed to a number of changes, which were pushed by Gov. Gavin Newsom and intended to dramatically overhaul the utility and prevent a repeat of its prior recklessness.


And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Coronavirus hospitalizations are rising in some parts of California, jeopardizing more reopenings. Health officials have said that the public needs to look beyond the rising number of coronavirus cases in California and focus on whether hospitalizations increase as a sign that reopening the economy is leading to new outbreaks. Statewide, hospitalizations have remained relatively flat. But in some parts of California, they are again on the rise — and if the trend continues, it could force officials to slow the pace of reopenings. Los Angeles Times


Unarmed specialists, not LAPD, would handle mental health and substance abuse calls under a new proposal: Several L.A. City Council members called for a new emergency-response model that uses trained specialists, rather than LAPD officers, to respond to calls for service not related to violence. Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles is apparently “becoming a gin destination,” as urban distillers incorporate flavors inspired by the city’s dynamic food scenes and culture. Wine Enthusiast

As L.A. reopens, an underground dance party draws revelers and worries health experts. An illicit dance party, held in a South L.A. warehouse on Friday night, may have been the city’s first live music event since the coronavirus shutdown. “I’m not worried. I’ve been suicidal since I was a teen,” a young woman told a reporter in a macabre, deadpan tone. “I guess I’m just not going to hang out with my grandma for a while.” Los Angeles Times

At least 177 pharmacies were burglarized or damaged during recent unrest in the Los Angeles area, disrupting some residents’ access to medication and raising concerns that the stolen drugs will be resold on the street. Los Angeles Times

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Travel restrictions at the U.S-Mexico border will remain in place through July 21. This is the third time border restrictions have been extended for an additional month since the initial joint agreement in March was adopted as a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Los Angeles Times


President Trump signed an executive order that seeks to leverage federal grants to improve police training and hiring, but the limited measures fell far short of addressing widespread demands for deep reforms to prevent recurring abuse of Black people. Los Angeles Times

Here are the 98 U.S. cities where protesters were tear-gassed. At least 10 are in California. New York Times


Suspect in killing of two Bay Area officers tied to right-wing ‘boogaloo’ group, prosecutors allege: On Tuesday, federal law enforcement officials announced that they were charging Air Force Sgt. Steven Carrillo, 32, the alleged owner of that vest, and suspected accomplice Robert A. Justus Jr., 30, of Millbrae in the May 29 shooting death of a federal security officer in Oakland. Officials said Carrillo, who also faces state charges in the June 6 killing of a Santa Cruz sheriff deputy, was a follower of the “boogaloo” movement, which a federal complaint said is not a fixed group but includes people who identify themselves as militia and target perceived government tyranny. Los Angeles Times


California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris on why addressing racial health disparities through changes to medical practice alone is not enough. This moment “requires us to address the systemic racism that profoundly hurts our children and our health by immersing them in sustained, dehumanizing trauma,” the state’s first-ever surgeon general writes. Medium

How a defiant Northern California church thwarted COVID-19 trackers. After a Butte County church defied Gov. Newsom’s statewide order and opened its doors for services last month, health officials discovered one of the parishioners had tested positive for COVID-19, potentially exposing more than 160 people at the church. The county’s efforts to track and contain the disease were stymied almost immediately because the church and most of its members refused to share information with health officials. Sacramento Bee

Researchers in England say they have the first evidence of a drug improving chances of COVID-19 survival: A cheap, widely available steroid called dexamethasone reduced deaths by up to one-third in severely ill hospitalized patients. Los Angeles Times


For Black CEOs in Silicon Valley, humiliation is a part of doing business. “They describe a career of subtle slights or outright discrimination in which they face regular inquisition about their credentials and peculiar suggestions to hire a white business partner to make investors more comfortable.” Bloomberg

The closure of Las Vegas’ casinos has brought Baker, Calif., to a virtual standstill. But as Vegas wakes up, this tiny town that visitors often stop in is also struggling to come back to life. Los Angeles Times

Alien Fresh Jerky in Baker, Calif.
Alien Fresh Jerky is a popular haunt for people passing through Baker on their way to Vegas. Baker has a population of roughly 600 and sits along Interstate 15.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Groups clashed in Orange County over mask requirements: A small group opposed to Orange County’s relaxed rules on face coverings amid the COVID-19 pandemic was met Tuesday by a much louder crowd intent on drowning out their message. Los Angeles Times

Every Friday, an Oakland man bakes dozens of loaves of challah to give away free to neighbors. At first, he just aimed to create a simple treat for people slogging through yet another stay-at-home week, but then he saw challah bags as a unique vehicle for delivering a social or political message. Last week, each challah was passed out with a message linking the historic plight of the Jewish people (“slavery, oppression and genocide”) to the struggles of people of color today. Jewish News of Northern California

A group of Hemet students has recreated its high school campus in the video game Minecraft. It took 18 days and nearly 10 million blocks to recreate the STEM charter school, and students can now “wander the campus and spend time in classrooms virtually,” all within the game. Riverside Press-Enterprise

A poem to start your Wednesday: “Hive” by Kevin Young.

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Los Angeles: partly sunny, 76. San Diego: partly sunny, 69. San Francisco: windy, 73. San Jose: windy, 87. Fresno: sunny, 91. Sacramento: sunny, 93. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Carol Bartlett:

I loved Southern Pacific train rides from L.A. to San Francisco (and back) when I was a child. Starting when I was 10 years old, I went alone in summers to visit relatives. The dining car was elegant, with starched white table linens, uniformed waiters, heavy cutlery, ice water in silver (plated) pitchers, and the best French toast ever. I’d also slip into the lounge car to sip ginger ale and watch the adults having cocktails, smoking and often flirting. To me, it was like being on a movie set.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.