By Stephen Hobbs, THE SACRAMENTO BEE
Richard Powers was first exposed to Tai Milder’s enthusiasm on a long drive from West Virginia more than a decade ago.
The recently-hired federal prosecutors had just finished up U.S. Department of Justice training and were headed to Dulles International Airport in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. While on the road, Milder shared his excitement about investigating economic crimes for the government. That “strong sense of mission” impressed Powers, a former infantry officer in the Army.
“You could see it play forward in his career,” he said.
Powers expects Milder to bring a similar passion to his latest job — leading a new state agency that will watch over oil markets for possible illegal activity that drives up costs for Californians.
State legislators created the Division of Petroleum Market Oversight after Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed to penalize oil companies for alleged price gouging. That came after drivers in the state last year paid prices that far exceeded the national average and oil companies earned major profits.
While announcing Milder’s appointment last week, Newsom in a statement touted his “impressive record of going after companies that rip off consumers.”
Milder, 43, gained much of that experience at the Justice Department. He joined the agency in 2009, under Attorney General Eric Holder, after growing up in Mendocino County and attending law school at the University of California, Berkeley.
He worked in the department’s antitrust section, which tries to promote economic competition by enforcing laws related to business practices and deals. Current and former prosecutors in the division praised his leadership and intelligence. Powers, who led the section for most of 2021, called Milder an “outstanding prosecutor” who often worked on complex cases.
One was a price-fixing investigation of canned tuna producers. It resulted in a $100 million fine for StarKist and a $25 million penalty for Bumble Bee Foods.
Milder helped successfully block an effort by a major seller of wall panels to buy its top competitor. And he prosecuted people accused of rigging foreclosure auctions in San Joaquin County.
Former federal prosecutors who worked with Milder on the auction cases called him diligent and highly organized.
“He’s very well suited to do well,” said Anna Pletcher, who also helped train Milder when he started out at the Department of Justice.
Milder also has experience at the state level. While working for the California Department of Justice, he was involved in a 2020 lawsuit that accused two multinational gasoline companies of driving up prices following an explosion at a refinery near Long Beach. The case is still pending, according to court records.
In a statement, Milder said he was looking forward to leading the “nation’s first independent oil and gas watchdog” and that transparency and accountability “will guide the work of this division every day.” When reached by phone, he declined to comment further. Milder, who is a Democrat, can start working in the role but needs to be confirmed by the California Senate for the $199,740-a-year post.
‘Behind the curtain’
Under the law that created the new agency, which is housed within the California Energy Commission, gas companies are required to report information on refinery maintenance and oil transactions. State refiners must also disclose the difference in price between the oil they bring in and what they sell it for.
The commission is empowered to set a maximum amount that refiners can make on their oil sales. And it can penalize companies that surpass it. A threshold and penalty amounts have not been set.
Milder’s office is able to demand that companies turn over information, such as current and historical sales data and contracts. It can also refer possible illegal activity to the state attorney general’s office.
The attorney’s credentials impressed supporters of the new division, including Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who introduced the bill that created it.
“His background is exactly what I think we need,” she said.
Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, hoped Milder’s selection would deter potential wrongdoing. The organization strongly advocated for oil companies to be penalized for alleged price gouging.
“This is a guy who can look behind the curtain and figure out if there is manipulation,” Court said
Gas prices are again creeping up across the state. The average cost for a regular gallon in California was above $5 on Monday, according to the American Automobile Association. That was the highest among all states and more than $1.20 above the national average.
Lawmakers who opposed the new agency didn’t criticize Milder in interviews. But they expressed doubt that he, and the new division, would result in lower prices.
“You can investigate all you want, but California oil companies are price takers, not price setters,” said Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield. Her district includes Kern County, a major oil producing region.
Grove and Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Nicolaus, both blamed California’s elevated gas prices on taxes and regulations. Neither of those, they said, would be addressed by the new entity.
“It requires a policy fix, not political grandstanding,” said Gallagher, who is the highest-ranking Republican in the Assembly.
The Western States Petroleum Association, a major trade group representing oil companies, also opposed creating the new agency. It has accused Newsom of spreading misinformation about what affects gas prices in the state.
When asked about Milder’s appointment, spokesman Kevin Slagle took a neutral approach.
Saying, “We look forward to a good and collaborative relationship with the new director and division.”