Even in the midst of the heated presidential campaign, two news stories about alleged corruption in California government managed to draw significant headlines and public attention.
One came when the state auditor issued a call for significant changes in procedures at the Public Utilities Commission, which sets rates for almost all electricity and natural gas used in California, routinely deciding billion-dollar issues. Changes similar to what the auditor recommended passed the state Assembly with a massive majority, but died without a state Senate vote on the last day of the year’s legislative session.
The other item saw the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission announce it will investigate charges of improper donations to the California Democratic Party brought by the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, which raised the question of links between those donations and significant actions by Gov. Jerry Brown that affected oil and energy companies which made the contributions.
But the FPPC said it won’t investigate Brown. This was no surprise, considering Brown appoints the powerful commission chair. But leaving Brown out of this investigation is a bit like eating a hot-dog bun without the sausage. It quite possibly omits the meat of the matter, not to mention vital questions.
Auditor Elaine Howell, lacking power to do more than issue reports, meanwhile, took 64 pages to say the PUC “has not effectively guarded against the appearance of improper influence in its public decision-making.” The report noted that former PUC President Michael Peevey “engaged in private discussions that were not disclosed in a timely manner,” casting legal and ethical doubts on key commission decisions.
Peevey met with officials of both the Southern California Edison Co. and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. around the times of the shutdown of Edison’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) and the multi-fatal 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno.
In both cases, meetings, emails and phone calls went unreported to the public. One case resulted in a token fine to PG&E, the other in forcing Edison’s customers to pay the bulk of the costs of the SONGS closure, caused by an Edison blunder.
The PUC last spring reopened that Edison decision, but has yet to make a new ruling.
In both cases, Brown did not discipline the commissioners he appointed, and the Legislature’s inaction as it ended its session allows for continued secret contacts like those central to those cases.
The FPPC’s investigation comes after Consumer Watchdog documented large Democratic Party contributions from Occidental Petroleum Corp. and Chevron Corp. Oxy’s donation came just after Brown fired two oil and gas regulators the company felt were slow to approve its desired fracking projects. Chevron’s arrived on the very day tough regulations were dropped from the 2013 Senate Bill 4, which was intended to restrict fracking operations where agricultural and drinking water aquifers might be threatened.
Oxy also gave $250,000 to Brown’s 2012 campaign for the Proposition 30 tax increases and another $100,000 to one of the governor’s pet charities, the Oakland Military Institute. These donations and others Consumer Watchdog reported smacked of old-fashioned pay-to-play politics.
To investigate the state Democratic Party for accepting the money begs the question of who solicited those donations. There also is no announced investigation of how the military school donation came about.
Similar donations in the late 1990s from insurance companies regulated by former Republican Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush led to his being hounded from office in the midst of his term amid charges the donations were actually payoffs. Considering the timing of Oxy’s donation, not investigating Brown’s possible link to it amounts to a clear-cut double standard.
One likely outcome of all this appears to be that there will be no immediate changes at the PUC. The appearance — and perhaps reality — of undue influence by utilities over the agency that regulates them continues. Brown, meanwhile, will likely coast through two more years until the end of his fourth and final term as governor.
The question remaining is whether his legacy will be the green-and-clean one he so clearly desires or whether he’ll be remembered instead for the alleged corruption among some of his appointees.
Thomas D. Elias is a writer in Southern California. [email protected]