Weighing charges

Prosecutors consider felony counts against PG&E

PG&E was the target of a group of environmental activists that honored victims of the Camp Fire last Friday (Nov. 1) at Children’s Playground in Chico.

PG&E was the target of a group of environmental activists that honored victims of the Camp Fire last Friday (Nov. 1) at Children’s Playground in Chico.

Photo/Andre Byik

More than a dozen environmental activists bowed their heads in silence for 85 seconds last Friday on Nov. 1 at Children’s Playground in Chico, recognizing the people killed in the Camp Fire.

The demonstrators also criticized PG&E, whose equipment was found responsible for starting the deadly blaze. Some carried signs reading, “People [over] profits,” “Let’s own PG&E” and “No more profits on electricity.”

A year after the Camp Fire, the Butte County District Attorney’s Office’s criminal investigation into PG&E’s role in the fire remains active. District Attorney Mike Ramsey said investigators have collected a large body of evidence, and prosecutors are viewing that evidence with two felony charges in mind: unlawfully causing a fire with gross negligence, and involuntary manslaughter. Ramsey did not disclose whether or when charges may be brought against PG&E.

There are several considerations he will take into account, including the interests of fire victims. The company, he said, could buckle under the weight of billions of dollars in potential civil liabilities and possible criminal restitution, leaving fire victims in the cold. In conversations with some survivors, Ramsey said, he has asked what they would prefer: “To be made whole or to kill PG&E?”

“Both,” comes the reply.

Last month, Ramsey rang in 32 years as Butte County’s elected district attorney. During those three-plus decades, he said, his office has not investigated a case of this magnitude.

Billions of dollars in possible criminal restitution are on the line. Eighty-four counts of involuntary manslaughter are being weighed. (The Camp Fire death tolls stands at 85, but one person was found to have died by suicide.) One supervising deputy district attorney—an expert on arson—has been working the case full-time since shortly after the Camp Fire sparked. Two investigators also hav e been working nearly full-time on the probe. Clerical staff has contributed as well. Then there’s the assist from the state Attorney General’s Office, which has provided attorneys to help.

“There has never been a case that … we’ve devoted that [many] resources to,” Ramsey said. “We’ve never had billions of dollars on the table before, either.”

DA investigators have seized critical evidence from the high-voltage PG&E transmission tower near Pulga—the utility’s equipment, according to Cal Fire, failed and sparked the Camp Fire. Specifically, Ramsey said, they collected a broken hook that caused an energized power line to swing into the tower structure, causing an arc flash estimated at 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The result was molten aluminum and steel spewing to the ground and surrounding brush.

Ramsey said that a piece of broken equipment was sent to the FBI’s laboratory in Quantico, Va., to be analyzed, and investigators have been looking at the hook with some questions in mind. Should PG&E have known that the piece was worn and could fail? Or did it have undetectable—“secret”—cracks or fissures that no reasonable person or corporation could have known would cause a failure?

The district attorney declined to divulge any possible answers to those questions, but he did say investigators collected hooks from other towers in the vicinity of the Camp Fire tower, and found them similarly worn. “We’re happy with the results thus far,” Ramsey said, adding that if the hooks had undetectable cracks the investigation would have been “dead in the water.”

Details of the year-long investigation have been teased in the media and during hearings in PG&E’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy case. One detail, disclosed by a civil attorney, was that a grand jury has been impaneled. Ramsey said he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of such a body.

PG&E has been cooperating with investigators, according to the DA. Prosecutors have met periodically with the utility’s “platoon” of attorneys. Multiple witnesses, including current and former PG&E employees, have been interviewed. And prosecutors have been poring over maintenance records and spreadsheets, decoding and interpreting the utility’s corporate language. Most records are digital, and there are a lot of them.

“We used to say—on large murder cases—I would say, ’Oh, my God, we’re going through reams of reports,’” Ramsey said. “Now it’s, ’We’re going through terabytes of data.’”

In a spokesperson’s statement, PG&E said it has been cooperating with the District Attorney’s Office but did not intend to discuss details of Ramsey’s investigation.

“We have been open and transparent since the Camp Fire occurred and have been proactive in supplying information about our infrastructure to the [California Public Utilities Commission], Cal Fire, the Butte County District Attorney and the California Attorney General,” the statement reads.

PG&E said its “most important responsibility” must be the safety of the public and its employees. The families affected by the Camp Fire are “our customers, our neighbors and our friends,” according to PG&E’s statement. “Our hearts go out to those who have lost so much, and we remain focused on supporting them …”

Prosecutors are looking at individual players within PG&E, in addition to the corporation itself. The challenge, Ramsey said, with charging people instead of a company is responsibilities for decisions can be diffused to the point where it’s difficult to prove individual responsibility. The downside of prosecuting a corporation, he said, is that it can’t be hauled off to jail for misdeeds. (PG&E already was convicted of six felony charges and placed on federal probation in connection with the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion.)

A conviction of 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter could result in penalties reaching about $2.5 million, Ramsey estimated.

“For PG&E, that’s not much,” he said. “Where they would be hurt in a sense—where the real penalty is—is the criminal restitution. The criminal restitution being that loss of all the property. That loss of all of the income. That loss of the businesses. Those, which right now is obviously estimated into the billions of dollars.”

Criminal restitution, the district attorney said, could be ordered if PG&E were charged and convicted of unlawfully causing a fire with gross negligence. However, he said PG&E’s bankruptcy case could add wrinkles into any possible prosecution. There is a “strong line” of statutory interpretation that concludes corporations can have criminal restitution payments discharged in bankruptcy, meaning they would not have to pay. Ramsey said he disagrees with the interpretation but conceded that fighting it would be an “uphill push.”

The considerations go back to the additional factors the DA’s Office has been taking into account.

“Do you kill PG&E in the bankruptcy court?” Ramsey said. “They don’t come out of the bankruptcy court and then they can discharge their criminal restitution—even if we convict them.”