CPUC launches new controversial foundation

CPUC launches new controversial foundation

January 27, 2011 6:51:59 PM PST
Pipeline safety is a top priority for two new public utilities commissioners and on Thursday afternoon, they promised change, but in the evening they sat down at a swanky dinner party with the very utilities they're supposed to be regulating.

It is a controversial fundraiser that took place at the Julia Morgan ballroom. A group was there to protest against the SmartMeters PG&E installs. Critics of the California Public Utilities Commission believe an overly friendly relationship between the commission and the utilities they're supposed to be regulating contributed to the San Bruno explosion. They say the foundation and dinner a proof they fear the utilities can buy influence. It comes on the same day as two new commissioners promised a new commitment to public safety.

Attorney Mike Florio and Catherine Sandoval took their seats next to commission president Michael Peevey. Florio brings a lifetime of experience as a consumer advocate with utility watchdog group TURN -- The Utility Reform Network.

"I've done this work for almost 33 years and it's mostly about rates and money and who pays and who receives and as we've all learned to our shock and dismay these last six months, what we do is also about human life," said Florio

Sandoval is a Santa Clara University law professor and former bureaucrat with expertise in the telecommunications industry.

The Gov. Jerry Brown appointees take their seats at a critical time; since the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion, PG&E is facing scathing criticism for sloppy pipeline safety practices and the CPUC is being scrutinized for its regulatory failings.

But the hope for a new era is undercut by the night's CPUC foundation inaugural dinner party, where utilities are among those paying $20,000 a table. The idea is to have funding for things like staff rewards and entertaining foreign visitors.

"I think the appearance is unfortunate and we've got to get better about managing appearances, but this is not the utilities paying for commissioners to take boondoggle trips," said Florio.

"I just learned about this event yesterday, so I'm not really prepared to comment on it. I understand that Commissioner Peevey is the person who has directed the development of this foundation," said Sandoval.

San Bruno residents are outraged.

"I find it important. I'm a retired federal employee and we'd get run out on a rail if we could do that, if we had a foundation that would give rewards and awards to out to our employees," says San Bruno fire victim John McGlothlin.

"The foundation cannot engage in advocacy because it's a non-profit organization. It's going to engage primarily in educational services," says former commissioner Jeff Brown, the foundation vice president.

In addition to the NTSB investigation and the PUC's independent panel investigation into San Bruno, president Peevey on Thursday announced a public investigation process that he will lay out of commission approval at their next meeting.