The lead attorneys probing a deadly pipeline explosion for California regulators have abruptly quit the investigation, putting the integrity of the probe in jeopardy, a San Bruno city official said Wednesday.
The four California Public Utilities Commission lawyers removed themselves from the matter earlier this week, just as the agency is poised to decide a fine for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which owns the pipeline that ruptured in San Bruno, City Manager Connie Jackson said.
“Those attorneys worked on the briefs that the CPUC will use as its basis for holding PG&E accountable,” Jackson said. “This absolutely will jeopardize the integrity of the process that has gone on for the last 2 1/2 years, and San Bruno cannot stand still and let that happen.”
Jackson called on California Attorney General Kamala Harris and the state Legislature to examine the reasons behind the abrupt departures.
The lawyers were the commission’s main experts on the blast and having them off the case will weaken the state’s case against PG&E, said Joe Como, acting director of the commission’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates, an independent watchdog arm of the utility regulator.
“I’m just suspicious that there is something that is going on that shouldn’t be. Maybe the lawyers have a very different opinion than the commission,” Como said. “The company may get away with a better decision in their favour.”
Commission spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said in a news release that some of the attorneys “asked to be reassigned to other matters, and their requests have been granted.”
She did not immediately respond to phone messages or emails seeking details about why the attorneys were off the case.
Harris’ office did not immediately comment on the request by the city of San Bruno for an independent investigation. PG&E also didn’t reply to a request for comment.
The commission’s legal team has spent more than two years investigating PG&E’s safety lapses before the Sept. 9, 2010, blast that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in a suburban neighbourhood overlooking the San Francisco Bay.
In early May, agency investigators called for PG&E to be fined $2.25 billion, with the money to be directly invested in safety testing and replacing and upgrading hundreds of miles of PG&E’s gas transmission lines. That means the company would be able to claim a portion of the penalty as a tax deduction.
A few days later, the director of the commission’s safety and enforcement division asked PG&E to detail all of its past and planned future spending on gas pipeline upgrades, which some interpreted as a request for the company to detail how much credit it could receive for safety investments.
PG&E later called the proposed fine “excessive.”
Last week, a member of the legal team filed a motion with the commission’s administrative law judges asking for PG&E’s accounting figures to be thrown out because the numbers were not supported by evidence. The judges agreed on Monday and struck the numbers from the record.
Follow Garance Burke at http://twitter.com/garanceburke .