Editorial: Picker, PUC Still Operating In Secret

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Restoring public trust in the California Public Utilities Commission should have been Michael Picker’s primary mission when he was appointed president by Gov. Jerry Brown nearly two years ago.

Instead he appears to have not taken steps to address issues that were the trademark of his predecessor, Michael Peevey. Based on a scathing report by the state auditor, Picker and the PUC haven’t done nearly enough to improve the commission’s tattered reputation.

Then last Friday, the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission disclosed it has opened a formal probe into allegations of corruption in the California Democratic Party’s web of close ties involving the PUC, Gov. Jerry Brown’s office and utilities.

Reacting to Auditor Elaine Howle’s report, former PUC Commissioner Loretta Lynch said: “For a decade now, the PUC has been above the law. The PUC is a rogue agency.”

That sounds right to us.

In a formal response to the audit, the PUC said it will work to adopt its recommendations. But these are problems Picker should have fixed on his own.

If he doesn’t fully comply with the recommendations, he should resign. If he doesn’t, the Legislature needs to step in. Don’t expect the governor to help.

The audit says the PUC has allowed the appearance of improper influence by outside interests and has failed to fully disclose key communications with utilities.

It recommends that commissioners publicly report private discussions with any parties to their proceedings and be required to recuse themselves when their impartiality is reasonably questioned.

These issues have plagued the PUC since Peevey took over as president in 2002. Peevey left in disgrace in 2014 after a decade of blatantly cozying up to PG&E and other utilities he was supposed to regulate. It was under Peevey, for example, that the PUC let PG&E fudge on gas pipeline safety in favor of executive bonuses, which led to the 2010 San Bruno tragedy.

Lawmakers, including state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, pushed hard for legislation to require transparency in the PUC’s dealings this year, but Picker was able to sideline it over a provision that would have made it easier for his employees to act as whistleblowers.

A compromise on the provision was entirely possible, but Picker and Brown didn’t make the legislation a high enough priority. Maybe it’ll take another neighborhood blowing up to get the governor’s attention.

The audit found that since 2010, commissioners had accepted 19 gifts totaling $150,000 from non-profits with ties to the utilities, paying for trips overseas.

The only way the  PUC and regulated utilities can regain respect is full transparency on their workings. The state auditor’s recommendations are spot on. Action is years overdue, and the cost of delay has included lost lives.

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