Los Angeles, CA — In a letter to California’s legislative leaders, Consumer Watchdog today wrote that the shocking details of a utility junket in Maui with 12 state lawmakers while wildfires destroyed the state should compel new immediate online disclosures about such trips.
“We were shocked to learn that while many wildfire victims fled for their lives in Paradise and Malibu this November, utility executives and lobbyists for California’s big utilities were wining and dining 12 influential state legislators in a different paradise — Wailea, Maui,” Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court wrote to leaders of the California state Senate and Assembly.
The letter was prompted by reporting from the New York Times of the details of the junket this week and the discussion about the wildfires there, which inevitably had to include another ratepayer bailout for the utilities that may have helped spark the blaze.
“Legislative junkets to far-flung and exotic destinations have become a regulator rite of passage in the Capitol. Nonetheless, the timing of this gathering is beyond the pale,” the letter said.
“Edison and its executives had a captive audience with the 12 Wailea legislators around the pool at the posh Fairmont Kea Lani as the Woolsey fire devastated Malibu,” Court noted. “PG&E executives had paid for their seat at the luau, but decided not to show as the Campfire raged and their equipment was fingered as a possible cause. Executives from SEMPRA, parent of San Diego Gas & Electric, were there too.”
Legislators in attendance included Assembly Members Tom Daly, Frank Bigelow, Bill Brough, Jim Cooper, Heath Flora, Jim Frazier, Reggie Jones-Sawyer, Freddie Rodriguez, Blanca Rubio and the Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon, as well as Senators Hueso and Cathleen Galgiani, according to the Independent Voter Project, which organized the event. All voted in 2018 to make ratepayers pay for the 2017 fires even if utilities were found to be negligent.
Consumer Watchdog noted the “Wailea 12” received more than $630,000 from the utilities in campaign contributions. They included the chair of the Senate utilities oversight committee Ben Hueso, Assembly Insurance Committee Chair Tom Daly and Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon. Other legislators are also part of the key committees deciding the fate of legislation determining who pays for wildfires — utilities (whose equipment was at fault), insurance companies, ratepayers or taxpayers.
“Currently, as you know, legislators only disclose paid-for travel and accommodations for these junkets once per year on their statements of economic interest,” the letter noted. The public is left in the dark about how and when their elected officials hob nob with special interests who have business before the legislature.
“It’s shameful that while wildfire victims fled for their lives, and many lost them, legislative policy about the wildfires was being made over Mai Tais in Maui with utilities executives and lobbyists. Such junkets should stop, but if they do not then the legislators, lobbyists and lobbyist employers involved should at least be required to disclose them in real time on their websites to constituents.
“Consumer Watchdog urges you to institute new rules for your respective houses that require sitting legislators to disclose on their public websites the educational “seminars” and trips they attend when they accept an invitation and the lobbyists attending as well. Had this been a requirement for the Wailea trip in November many legislators would likely have reconsidered their attendance. “
Court noted the irony that the host, the so-called Independent Voter Foundation, is headed by the author and architect of California’s disastrous electricity deregulation experiment, former state senator Steve Peace.
“Peace is the last person legislators should be taking advice from, his advocacy of free market electricity brought us Enron and the last utility bankruptcies,” the letter said.
“The ink is barely dry on the ratepayer bailout of utilities over the 2017 wildfires, grudgingly passed on the last night of the legislative session in September. Already the utilities and their advocates are pushing for a new bailout in Sacramento over the 2018 fires.
“Assembly Member Chris Holden, Chair of the Assembly Utilities Committee, said he would introduce such legislation. Holden was the recipient of Peace’s same freebee junket to Maui in November of 2017, according to his statement of economic interest forms filed in March 2018, right before co-chairing the legislative conference committee that pushed through last session’s bailout.
“The public deserves full and immediate disclosure,” the letter concluded.
– 30 –