Util­ity pleads guilty to 84 man­slaugh­ter counts in Calif. wild­fires

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL LIEDTKE

Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric con­fessed Tues­day to killing 84 peo­ple in one of the most dev­as­tat­ing wild­fires in re­cent U.S. history dur­ing a dra­matic court hear­ing punc­tu­ated by a prom­ise from the com­pany’s out­go­ing CEO that the na­tion’s largest util­ity will never again put prof­its ahead of safety.

PG&E CEO Bill John­son made the roughly 170-mile jour­ney from the com­pany’s San Fran­cisco head­quar­ters to a Butte County court­house to plead guilty to 84 felony counts of in­vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter stem­ming from a Novem­ber 2018 wild­fire ig­nited by the util­ity’s crum­bling elec­tri­cal grid. The blaze nearly wiped out the en­tire town of Par­adise and drove PG&E into bank­ruptcy early last year.

Be­sides the mass deaths it caused, PG&E also pleaded guilty to one felony count of un­law­fully start­ing a fire as part of an agree­ment with Dis­trict At­tor­ney Mike Ram­sey.

As Butte County Su­pe­rior Court Judge Michael Deems read the names of each vic­tim, John­son ac­knowl­edged the hor­rific toll of PG&E’s history of ne­glect while solemnly star­ing at pho­tos of each dead per­son shown on a screen set up in the court­room.

“No words from me could ever re­duce the mag­ni­tude of that dev­as­ta­tion or do any­thing to re­pair the dam­age,” John­son said in a state­ment af­ter­ward. “I hope the ac­tions taken today bring some mea­sure of peace.”

He also as­sured the judge that PG&E took re­spon­si­bil­ity for all the un­nec­es­sary dev­as­ta­tion that it caused “with eyes wide open to what hap­pened and to what must never hap­pen again.”

John­son was hired about six months af­ter the Camp Fire and plans to step down as CEO on June 30 when PG&E hopes to have won court ap­proval for its plan to get out of its sec­ond bank­ruptcy case in 16 years. A mostly new board of di­rec­tors re­cently an­nounced

by PG&E as part of a deal with Cal­i­for­nia will hire his re­place­ment.

The ex­tra­or­di­nary court hear­ing was set up to pub­licly shame PG&E for past prac­tices that em­pha­sized boost­ing prof­its to keep in­vestors happy in­stead up­grad­ing and main­tain­ing its crum­bling equip­ment to pro­tect the 16 mil­lion peo­ple who rely on the util­ity for power.

Many of the fire’s vic­tims were el­derly or dis­abled. They took des­per­ate mea­sures to save them­selves:

♦ Den­nis Clark Jr., 49, was found in the pas­sen­ger seat of a car his 72-year-old mother was driv­ing. Their car was in a line of three other ve­hi­cles with bod­ies of vic­tims in each one.

♦ Sara Mag­nu­son, 75, was found in­side her home, wrapped in a wet car­pet in the bath­tub in a fu­tile at­tempt to save her­self.

“These 84 peo­ple did not need to die if PG&E had done its job in a rea­son­able way,” Ram­sey said dur­ing an hour-long press con­fer­ence that in­cluded show­ing off some of the nearly cen­tury-old parts that the util­ity al­lowed to de­cay on its power lines lead­ing up to the Camp Fire.

More than 20 fam­ily mem­bers of the peo­ple killed are ex­pected to make state­ments in court Wed­nes­day.

Deems is ex­pected to for­mally sen­tence PG&E ei­ther Thurs­day or Fri­day, though no one will be im­pris­oned for the com­pany’s crimes.

PG&E has agreed to pay a max­i­mum fine of $3.5 mil­lion in ad­di­tion to $500,000 for the cost of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The San Fran­cisco com­pany won’t be placed on crim­i­nal pro­ba­tion, un­like what hap­pened af­ter its nat­u­ral gas lines blew up a neigh­bor­hood in San Bruno, Calif., killing eight peo­ple in 2010. That tragedy re­sulted in a crim­i­nal con­vic­tion that put PG&E on a five-year pro­ba­tion that ends in Jan­uary 2022. The San Bruno con­vic­tions didn’t in­clude homi­cide charges, un­like what hap­pened in the ex­tra­or­di­nary case brought against PG&E in Butte County.

“It is a mod­icum of jus­tice,” Ram­sey said of

Tues­day’s guilty pleas while ex­press­ing with his in­abil­ity to seek harsher penal­ties. “It isn’t per­fect jus­tice, but we don’t have a per­fect sys­tem.”

Ram­sey pre­dicted Butte County’s ex­haus­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tion will lay the foun­da­tion for im­pris­on­ing mem­bers of PG&E’s fu­ture man­age­ment team if the util­ity doesn’t live up to its prom­ises.

“They are on no­tice,” he said. “The ex­cuses are gone.”

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In Fe­bru­ary 2019, Christina Taft, the daugh­ter of Camp Fire vic­tim Vic­to­ria Taft, dis­played a col­lage of pho­tos of her mother at the burned-out ru­ins of the Par­adise, Calif., home where she died in 2018.

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