By Lauren Fruen and Jennifer Smith, THE DAILY MAIL UK
January 30, 2019
Pacific Gas & Electric, the nation's largest utility company, is trying to keep their $130million bonus program for employees despite declaring bankruptcy.
The utility company has requested that the judge allow them to keep the cash performance pay for work during 2018, according to U.S. Bankruptcy Court records.
PG&E wrote: 'PG&E believes the short-term incentive program awards incentivize strong employee performance and are critical to ensuring that employees stay motivated and reach higher performance standards.'
But the request has been labelled 'shameful' by critics after the November wildfires in California which claimed dozens of lives and destroyed thousands of homes.
Sen. Jerry Hill told The Mercury News: 'It's shameful that PG&E would ask for this and it would be shameful if the court approves this.
'They can give out $130 million but can't pay fire victims. This is an affront and an abuse of our system if these bonuses are approved.'
Jamie Court, president of Consumer Action, added: 'PG&E says it's too poor to pay fire victims but has enough money to pay $130 million in bonuses. A company that does that is unworthy of the support of Gov. (Gavin) Newsom, the Legislature and the PUC.'
PG&E has said some managers but no top-level executives would get the bonuses requested, according to reports.
A spokesperson told DailyMail.com: 'We are seeking authority to pay employees the STIP Awards earned for 2018. We are specifically NOT requesting authority to pay STIP Awards to any officers.'
The official cause of the Camp fire - the deadliest in the state's history which claimed 86 lives and razed 15,000 homes in Paradise - has not been determined but speculation is rife that PG&E, which had reported power line problems in the weeks before it started, may be to blame.
The company cited hundreds of lawsuits from victims of that blaze and others in 2017 and 2018 when it announced this month that it planned to file for bankruptcy.
That Camp Fire catastrophe has already sharpened questions about whether a company with a troubled history has put profit ahead of safety.
PG&E, whose shares have fallen 72 percent over the last year, could face huge liabilities if investigations reveal its equipment was directly responsible for the fire.
The company is committed to providing safe and reliable electricity throughout the bankruptcy and to work for 'an orderly, fair and expeditious resolution of its liabilities resulting from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires,' it said in a statement.
The company listed assets of $71.39billion and liabilities of $51.69billion and also asked for a $5.5bn bank bail out to continue operating as lawsuits play out
One line of inquiry for investigators is over what role a damaged 115,000-volt line at one of PG&E's towers reported by the company just moments before the fire may have played in the conflagration.
Documents provided to AFP by the operator said the power line, called 'Caribou Palermo,' was put into service in the 1920s by Great Western Power Company, which was acquired by PG&E in 1930.
'It is clear that the Camp Fire resulted from PG&E´s willful and conscious disregard of public safety,' according to a lawsuit filed by Butte County against the utility, which said the company failed to properly maintain vegetation growth near its electric lines.
'They don't need to control Mother Nature,' said John Fiske, an attorney representing more than 1,000 victims. 'What they need to control is their own assets.'
The bankruptcy filing immediately puts a halt to the wildfire lawsuits and consolidates them in bankruptcy court, where legal experts say victims will likely receive less money.
Wildfire victims have little chance of getting punitive damages or taking their claims to a jury in a bankruptcy proceeding.
Instead, they will have to tussle with PG&E's creditors, including bondholders, for a payout from the company.
Consumer activist Erin Brockovich, who famously took on PG&E in the 1990s, had urged California lawmakers not to let the utility go bankrupt because it could mean less money for wildfire victims.
Legal experts say the bankruptcy will likely take years to resolve and will result in higher rates for PG&E customers.
The company provides natural gas and electric service to 16 million people over a 70,000-square-mile area in Northern and central California.