Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has lost its effort to have a description of the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes deleted from its criminal indictment as unnecessary “surplus” language that would prejudice a jury.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson Monday rejected a move by PG&E to have a descriptive paragraph removed from its 28-count indictment accusing the company of obstructing a National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the explosion and 27 counts of violating gas pipeline safety law.
The language that PG&E considers supplusage is one paragraph that describes the blast:
“On September 9, 2010, at approximately 6:11 p.m., a portion of Line 132 (Segment 180) ruptured in a residential neighborhood of the City of San Bruno (the ‘San Bruno explosion’). Gas escaping from the rupture ignited, causing a fire that killed eight people and injured 58 others. The fire also damaged 108 homes, 30 of which were completely destroyed.”
“PG&E argues that the subject of the NTSB investigation is unnecessary, and therefore irrelevant,” Henderson wrote, “because the government need only prove that there was an ongoing investigation.”
“The relevance of identifying the subject of the investigation goes beyond merely providing context. The specific intent required for obstruction of justice under the applicable statute is that PG&E must have acted ‘corruptly,’ meaning that ‘the act must be done with the purpose of obstructing justice,’” Henderson wrote.
“Because the government must prove this criminal purpose beyond a reasonable doubt at trial, the subject and scope of the investigation is directly relevant,” he said. It would be exceedingly difficult for a jury to determine PG&E’s guilty knowledge and obstructive actions without knowing the nature of the investigation and potential consequences if the NTSB found the utility at fault, he concluded.
PG&E also objected to keeping the language in the indictment because it “facilitates the media’s coverage of this case as a prosecution primarily of PG&E’s role in the explosion as opposed to a pipeline maintenance violation and obstruction charge,” the decision notes.
Henderson called it “unreasonable” to believe that striking the language would change media coverage.
PG&E Other Troubles
This legal move comes on the heels of disclosures earlier this month that PG&E improperly contacted Public Utilities Commission staff through email in an attempt to influence which administrative law judge would hear its natural gas rate case.
As a result of the disclosure of the contacts, the company said it fired three top vice presidents. PUC rules prohibit contacts with its decision makers that are not also available to all parties in the case, similar to court rules on communications with a judge.
The PUC is in the midst of deciding whether to impose a fine against PG&E for alleged negligence as a result of the blast. The PUC staff has proposed a $2.25 billion fine and two PUC judges recently proposed a $1.4 billion penalty. PG&E appealed the fine to the PUC. The commission has yet to determine the amount it may impose.
The disclosures came after the mayor of San Bruno complained in July that PUC officials, including PUC President Michael Peevey, did not properly notify the public of confidential communications with the utility.
On Sept. 14, Peevey asked his chief of staff, Carol Brown, to resign for “inappropriate communications” with PG&E and she did. In the face of complaints that he had “too cozy” a relationship with PG&E, Peevey removed himself from any proceedings related to the San Bruno explosion and fire.
Case: U.S. v. PG&E, No. 14-CR-175TEH