Jeff McDonald

By Jeff McDonald
Sept. 10, 2016 | Updated – 12:15 p.m.

  • Commission president had last-minute concern about criminal penalty provisions of law

When key bills aimed at reforming the California Public Utilities Commission died last month, much of the blame was placed publicly at the feet of a Republican floor leader — someone not typically seen as a make-or-break figure in a Democrat-dominated legislature.

It turns out, the CPUC itself had some last-minute concerns about the overhaul that contributed to its demise.

A spokeswoman for Michael Picker, president of the commission, said that certain legislative staffers were concerned that his patron, Gov. Jerry Brown, would veto the reform measures.

“Legislative staff asked him about a veto and he did not respond,” Picker’s spokeswoman, Terrie Prosper, said via email. “To further clarify, the CPUC does not decide the outcome of a bill.”

The commission has been under criminal investigation for nearly two years, for backchannel dealings with utility executives regarding issues such as the failure of the San Onofre nuclear plant north of Oceanside.

Brown vetoed a slate of reform bills last year, saying they were contradictory and unworkable as a whole. He signed on for a reform package in June, after the Assembly overwhelmingly passed a proposed constitutional amendment to strip the utilities commission of much of its authority.

Among other provisions, the overhaul would have added an internal auditor to review commission decisions and prohibited former utility executives from serving on the commission for at least two years. The failed reforms were contained in Senate Bill 1017 and Assembly Bill 2903.

The last-minute concerns from the CPUC involved a provision of current law that makes it a misdemeanor crime for utilities commission employees to release information to the outside world — such as Wall Street investors — that has been deemed confidential or proprietary by utility companies.

Prosper said that provision needs to be removed, because it’s in conflict with California Public Records Act provisions that may require release of documents. The reform measures would have given Superior Court judges the ability to enforce the records act on the commission — something those judges cannot now do.

“The problem is that Section 583 of the Public Utilities Code, which pertains to the CPUC, contradicts the Public Records Act because it imposes a misdemeanor for those employees who divulge confidential information,” she wrote. “SB 1017 would not have sufficiently amended this section of the law to the extent that would allow us to fulfill requests for records that are deemed confidential by utilities without the threat of a misdemeanor charge.”

The bills died after they did not meet last-minute procedural hurdles.

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