Court rejects PG&E-funded lawsuit to conceal details of Camp Fire crimes

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A year and a half after PG&E pleaded guilty to 85 felonies for causing the Camp Fire and killing 84 people, we’re a step closer to being able to read the evidence.

SACRAMENTO, Calif — A California appeals court on Wednesday rejected a PG&E-funded lawsuit that concealed details of the company’s crimes in the 2018 Camp Fire. It’s a step toward allowing the public to read the record of the case. At issue is whether the public can read the 7,000-page transcript of the criminal grand jury in Butte County that charged PG&E, including the names of some 200 PG&E employees who appear in the documents.

In a unanimous opinion rendered Wednesday, the Third District Court of Appeal decided the public can, writing “it is not a close question.”

In this Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018 photo, residences leveled by the Camp Fire line a neighborhood in Paradise, Calif. Wildfires have destroyed nearly 50,000 homes in California alone in the last five years. While much attention is focused on managing overgrown forests, fire managers say it’s equally crucial to increase the fire resistance of homes and the area immediately around them, known as “defensible space.” (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

The justices ruled against PG&E workers who wanted their names blacked out of the documents. If the ruling is not appealed to the state supreme court, the records can be made available to the public in 60 days. “We are pleased with the decision,” Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said. “We feel that this is a victory for the First Amendment and the light of day.” ABC10 made legal arguments for release of the documents in the case, joined by the Wall Street Journal. Under California law, grand jury transcripts are supposed to be released to the public ten days after the case is completed, which would have been in June 2020.

Lead Camp Fire prosecutor Marc Noel (left) and Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey (right) pose with the 7,000-page transcript of the criminal case against PG&E for the 2018 Camp Fire. The records, which come from an investigatory grand jury that took testimony over the course of a year, remain under seal due to a court order in a lawsuit funded by PG&E in the wake of the Camp Fire convictions. PG&E’s century-old Caribou-Palermo transmission line was allowed to wear down until it broke in a windstorm, resulting 85 felony convictions in the deadliest homicide ever committed by a corporation on U.S. soil. Credit: Brandon Rittiman

“We are hopeful that any further delay will not occur,” Ramsey said. PG&E pleaded guilty to all 85 criminal charges in the grand jury’s indictment: 84 felony counts of manslaughter and one felony arson count for sparking the Camp Fire through criminal negligence. But the record of the PG&E case has been kept secret due to the lawsuit. The names of the 22 PG&E workers who filed it were accidentally released by their attorneys. They were identified last year in an ABC10 story about the criminal records that have been kept secret.

A still image from a November 2021 television report shows all 22 PG&E employees who sued for anonymity after being named in the criminal investigation of the 2018 Camp Fire. Many worked in roles that had no decision-making authority over the electrical business that sparked the Camp Fire. They mix of high and low-level employees, named in the case for many different reasons, and are among about 200 employees whose names appear in the 7,000-page grand jury record. The report named them because the lawsuit they filed, funded by PG&E, blocked the release of those records for more than a year. California law makes grand jury records public ten days after a case is finished, which in this case means the records should have come out in June 2020. Credit: ABC10

The Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento sealed the entire 7,000 page record while the suit has been pending for a year and a half. The secrecy — and the fact that PG&E paid for the lawsuit — offends family members of the people killed in the fire. “I would love to know the entire factors of what caused the fire that took my grandma,” said Steve Bradley, the grandson of Colleen Riggs, one of PG&E’s manslaughter victims. “But they don’t want to release that to the public.”