‘Outrageous, unethical and unacceptable’

PG&E’s consultant is accused of pilfering documents in San Joaquin’s public-power fight—by PG&E

An employee of a political consulting firm working for PG&E allegedly hacked into computer files belonging to the South San Joaquin Irrigation District (SSJID) last week. The files were reportedly internal documents related to the irrigation district’s campaign to annex parts of PG&E’s territory in the towns of Ripon, Manteca and Escalon.

PG&E and the irrigation district are embroiled in a contentious battle over the area’s 35,000 electricity customers, a fight that in some ways parallels the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s effort to annex parts of Yolo County.

Officials of the SSJID have accused the utility of inflating the value of its electricity assets and of exaggerating the costs of the annexation to local ratepayers. The consulting firm PG&E had hired to wage the public-relations battle there, Meridian Pacific Inc., is partly owned by Woodland Mayor Matt Rexroad.

Now PG&E is accusing Meridian Pacific of unethical behavior. According to a letter from PG&E to SSJID officials, an unnamed Meridian Pacific employee used a laptop computer last week to access the district’s wireless network while attending a public meeting at the SSJID’s offices. Then, according to the letter, the employee copied seven files associated with SSJID’s campaign to annex parts of PG&E’s service area and e-mailed the files to his supervisor at Meridian Pacific. PG&E says Meridian partner Tom Ross then e-mailed them on to Mark Hendrickson, a PG&E employee who was working on the SSJID campaign.

But PG&E insists it has nothing to do with the action and that the company acted immediately to notify SSJID and law enforcement, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

According to PG&E spokesman Jon Tremayne, Hendrickson opened and read two of the files before he realized that he shouldn’t be in possession of the documents.

“Meridian’s actions were outrageous, unethical and unacceptable,” PG&E said in a later written statement. PG&E had severed its relationship with Meridian by Friday. PG&E’s Hendrickson has been taken off of the South San Joaquin project.

One of the three principal partners at Meridian Pacific is Matt Rexroad, the mayor of Woodland.

Rexroad’s firm was hired by PG&E to stop the public-power campaign in San Joaquin County at the same time that local governments in Yolo County are embracing annexation by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. Because of the conflict of interest, Rexroad recused himself from voting on the annexation issue when it came before the Woodland City Council. Rexroad told SN&R that his work for Meridian Pacific was in no way related to his position as Woodland mayor.

On Tuesday, Rexroad said that PG&E’s version of events was unfair.

“I’m disappointed that PG&E would make these statements without knowing all of the facts.” He said Meridian Pacific had hired a computer expert to determine how the SSJID files wound up being sent to PG&E. “There is an investigation, and we are going to find out exactly what happened.”

This is not the first time that one of PG&E’s consultants has gotten into trouble while helping the company fight a public-power initiative. In October 2004, the law firm Nielsen Merksamer was fined $240,000 for failing to report about $800,000 in campaign contributions from PG&E to defeat Proposition D, a 2002 ballot measure that would have allowed San Francisco to start its own municipal utility. PG&E spent nearly $3 million in successfully defeating the measure.