The infighting within the California Public Utilities Commission over
how to punish Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for the 2010 San Bruno disaster
culminated Wednesday in a shakeup that left the agency's top lawyer -- a former
PG&E attorney -- off the high-profile case.
The commission's general counsel, Frank Lindh, had come under fire for reassigning commission attorneys who wanted PG&E fined for the natural-gas pipeline explosion, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
The attorneys had clashed with the head of the commission's safety division, Jack Hagan, who argued that the money PG&E is spending to improve its gas system was penalty enough and that a fine would only go into the state's general fund.
After reassigning the attorneys this month, Lindh publicly asserted that the legal team had wanted off the case. The team's lead attorney, Harvey Morris, angrily disputed that in an e-mail to Lindh that was later leaked, demanding that he stop making "defamatory representations that I and the other attorneys in the San Bruno (matter) voluntarily left the case."
On Wednesday, commission President Michael Peevey and Commissioner Mike Florio issued a statement that Lindh "will recuse himself from his role as chief advisory attorney" in San Bruno-related cases. That role will be fulfilled by a retired attorney for the commission, Arocles Aguilar.
Morris and the other attorneys have agreed to be put back on the PG&E case and will work with Hagan, the statement said. The question of whether to fine PG&E is now before two administrative law judges, who will make a recommendation to Peevey, Florio and the other three commissioners sometime this summer.
"We are aware of recent issues surrounding staffing of (commission) attorneys assigned to the cases, and as such, have made internal changes," the commissioners' statement said. They praised Lindh for "his statesmanship in stepping aside."
Lindh was a PG&E gas attorney for more than a decade until being hired by the commission in 2008. His time with the utility coincided with the period during which many of PG&E's alleged gas-system violations occurred, but he left the utility before the September 2010 San Bruno blast.
He did not respond to a phone call late Wednesday seeking comment.
Lindh reassigned the attorneys after a May 31 confrontation with Hagan in which the safety division chief told them to help him build a case against fining PG&E "or else," according to confidential e-mails from the lawyers that The Chronicle obtained.
Some of the attorneys told Lindh in those e-mails that they felt threatened by Hagan, who has acknowledged that he used to carry a concealed gun in the office.
In an interview with The Chronicle on Tuesday, Hagan described himself as an "exasperated client" and said, "They are the attorneys that work for the client."
He added, however, that the attorneys had done "stupendous" work. And on Wednesday, the commission released a statement from Hagan saying that both he and the legal team were "seeking the same ultimate outcome, which is justice for the people of San Bruno and a safer PG&E pipeline system."
Morris has declined to discuss the dispute. In a statement released by the commission, he said there had been "some internal misunderstandings" but that he and the other lawyers were committed to working with Hagan on the PG&E case.
Letter to Lindh
The dispute had threatened to tear the commission apart. Late Tuesday, a dozen attorneys who work under Lindh wrote him a letter calling the lawyers on the PG&E case "some of the most respected, capable and experienced attorneys" at the commission and accusing Lindh of having engaged in a "public and high-profile campaign" against them.
The lawyers said Lindh apparently agreed with Hagan that "the client is the boss in commission proceedings, and the attorneys must simply obey, regardless of whether the actions involved are of questionable ethics and legality."
That position, the lawyers said, betrays the attorneys' duty to the public. They told Lindh that what happened to the commission's legal team on the PG&E case was "typical of the treatment of attorneys during your tenure" and said it was causing "extremely low morale."
San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson welcomed the return of the original legal team.
"We have the highest respect for Harvey (Morris) and the other attorneys who have been off the case," she said. "Harvey's return to managing the case, we believe, is good for this situation, and it's a victory for San Bruno."
She added, "Obviously there is more to do internally with the PUC. ... We see a great deal of disarray and dysfunction. But this is a very positive sign."
Jaxon Van Derbeken is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
(c)2013 the San Francisco Chronicle
Visit the San Francisco Chronicle at www.sfgate.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
Most Popular Stories
- Accenture Gets 8 Percent Bump in Q1
- Alex Kinsey, Sierra Deaton Crowned 'X-Factor' Champs
- Insurance Rule Change Angers Industry
- Revised GDP Up 4.1 Percent in 3rd Quarter
- Obama Opens Last-Minute Loophole in Insurance Law
- Time No Longer Stands Still for Cuban Entrepreneurs
- Renewable Energy Group to Acquire Syntroleum
- Obama's Dad Was Abusive Drunk, Half Brother Says
- Brian Boitano Announces That He Is Gay
- Little Risk of Deportation Under Obama