Kamala Harris

At this past week’s Senate debate, Kamala Harris said of the utilities commission, “We are concerned about what’s going on there, that’s why there’s an active criminal investigation. And the bottom line is this: We are going to go where the facts lead us.” — (Hayne Palmour IV)

By Jeff McDonald |
May 14, 2016 – 8 a.m.

  • Reports of missed deadlines are ‘absolutely incorrect,’ Harris says

Eighteen months ago, when the Attorney General’s Office served a search warrant on the California Public Utilities Commission headquarters in San Francisco, agents carted away computers, files and other materials by the armful.

It was more than a raid. It was a dramatic message to utility regulators: Attorney General Kamala Harris was serious about investigating government corruption.

Two months later, her agents searched longtime commission President Michael Peevey’s home in La Canada Flintridge.

Among other things, they found notes outlining an undisclosed meeting in Poland where Peevey and a utility executive discussed the framework for a deal to charge utility customers billions of dollars for the failed San Onofre nuclear power plant.

In recent months, as the commission ramped up spending on criminal defense lawyers, the Attorney General’s Office investigation of state utility regulators has been much more quiet.

Gone are the swarms of agents showing up unannounced to rifle through desktops and office drawers.

Now when prosecutors seek evidence about San Onofre’s faulty replacement steam generators, they contact attorneys for the commission and majority owner Southern California Edison and give them whatever time they need to decide which records to hand over.

A spokesman for the attorney general said he could not discuss discuss details but said Harris remains dedicated to the investigation.

“The attorney general is committed to combating public corruption and protecting the rights of California consumers, including taxpayers and ratepayers,” spokesman David Beltran wrote in a statement. “No government agency and no public utilities company is above law.”

Harris herself addressed the issue at a debate this past week in her bid for the U.S. Senate.

“We are concerned about what’s going on there, that’s why there’s an active criminal investigation,” she said. “And the bottom line is this: We are going to go where the facts lead us.”

Consumer advocates, legal scholars and others question why the public-corruption case appears to have slowed and whether Harris’s political aspirations intruded on the process.

“It’s completely rational to wonder whether or not the investigation has become too much of a political albatross for Attorney General Harris,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “It’s not that she’s slamming on the brakes, but she’s not hitting the gas.”

Harris is the former San Francisco district attorney who won a close race to succeed Jerry Brown as attorney general when he was elected governor in 2010. She is now considered the frontrunner for Senate seat being vacated this year by Barbara Boxer.

Beltran said the campaign has no bearing on the criminal review of commission practices.

“Any potential charges would be filed based on the facts and not election cycles,” his statement said.

The office is diligently reviewing more than a million pages of records, and it takes time to digest the materials and determine whether there is enough evidence to file criminal charges that can be proved in court, Beltran said.

Former prosecutor Alin Cintean said white-collar investigations can drag on for years while investigators wade through complicated documents. The case was likely made more difficult by the commission’s decision to bring in outside lawyers, he said.

“While it is not unusual for innocent parties to hire counsel, it is strange for a public regulatory agency to do so,” said Cintean, now a defense lawyer in Sacramento. “It smells fishy. Imagine your local code enforcement agency hiring criminal defense counsel to fend off an investigation.”

In their latest funding request, pushing the tab past $12 million, commission officials said staff lawyers were not qualified to represent the agency in criminal cases and the Attorney General’s Office is conflicted because it is conducting the investigation.

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