Judge: ‘PG&E has gone on a crime spree’ but will get off probation

Despite a ‘crime spree,’ PG&E will be allowed off federal probation after January 25 because federal prosecutors declined to ask it to be extended, the judge said.

The maximum five year term of probation was supposed to rehabilitate PG&E, but the federal judge made it crystal clear: probation failed.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup said he “tried hard to rehabilitate PG&E,” but as PG&E’s supervising judge he “must acknowledge failure.”

“In these five years, PG&E has gone on a crime spree and will emerge from probation as a continuing menace to California,” Alsup added.

The judge made these remarks while making official what he’d hinted in open court earlier this month: that PG&E’s federal probation will be allowed to expire on Jan. 25.

“In the absence of a motion by the United States Attorney to extend probation, the Court will not do so on its own,” Alsup wrote. The full comments are available in the PDF below.

In a Jan. 3 hearing, Alsup had invited federal prosecutors in San Francisco to ask him to extend PG&E’s time on probation.

The US Attorney’s office declined to comment to ABC10, pointing to its legal brief explaining the unsettled law surrounding extensions of probation for corporate offenders.

Many survivors of PG&E disasters had called on the judge to extend the probation.

“If I was on probation and went and committed 85 more felonies, there would be consequences for that,” said Steve Bradley, the grandson of Camp Fire victim Colleen Riggs. “Family members, loved ones, my grandma: killed by PG&E, they were victims of PG&E.”

PG&E’s criminal recidivism is notorious in Northern California. The company committed the deadliest homicide by any corporation on US soil: the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018.

In 2020, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and one reckless arson count for starting the Camp Fire through criminally negligent behavior.

Each year since, PG&E has sparked more massive fires, according to state fire investigators.

The company faces dozens of pending criminal charges in the 2019 Kincade and 2020 Zogg fires.

The Zogg Fire, which Alsup says PG&E knows “good and well” that it sparked, includes four new alleged felony manslaughter charges.

Judge Alsup tallied the destruction: “While on probation, PG&E has set at least 31 wildfires, burned nearly one and one-half million acres, burned 23,956 structures, and killed 113 Californians.”

In court, PG&E’s attorneys took issue with the judge’s characterizations, arguing the company had taken important steps to improve safety.

In his write-up, Alsup conceded that they had, “yet, PG&E’s swath of devastation persists. Why?”

Alsup offered pages of answers, including “PG&E’s stubborn refusal to take responsibility for its actions.”

“We always prefer that criminal offenders learn to accept responsibility for their actions. Sadly, during all five years of probation, PG&E has refused to accept responsibility for its actions until convenient to its cause or until it is forced to do so.”

Alsup expressed disappointment at the “evasion” he saw on the stand last year from the PG&E worker who radioed in the 2021 Dixie Fire, reporting it was sparked by a tree on a PG&E line.

The worker refused to stand by what he told his dispatcher the day the fire started: “There’s a tree on the line that started a fire.”

“He said it twice. He saw it firsthand,” the judge quipped.

The judge criticized PG&E for repeatedly blaming other people– and the world– for its tendency to start fires.

“PG&E has blamed global warming, drought, and bark beetles. It’s true that those things made the wildfires worse. But they were reasons to step up compliance rather than slack off. And, those things didn’t start those fires. PG&E did that,” Alsup wrote.

The judge also said PG&E blames its outside contractors, which do tree-cutting work that PG&E’s own employees used to do decades ago, partly to save money, but also “to manufacture a strategic defense in wildfire litigation.”

At times, Alsup expressed “regret” that he didn’t force PG&E to do more, echoing the comments he made in his courtroom that PG&E’s time on probation was “five years down the drain.”

While the state government and federal bankruptcy court acted swiftly to bail PG&E out of the consequences of the crimes it committed on probation, many people who lost homes and livelihoods to PG&E’s criminal negligence are still living impoverished lives.

The judge noted that thousands of fire survivors are still waiting for payment from PG&E, with many living in camping conditions years later because the money hasn’t come.

“Meanwhile, PG&E management pays itself handsome salaries and bonuses, all paid from revenues collected from customers,” the judge wrote.

“This unfairness should tug at our conscience.”

Through a spokesperson, PG&E said it “welcomed feedback” from the judge and said it is focused on making “a climate at PG&E where everyone and everything is always safe.”

“PG&E has become a fundamentally safer company over the course of our probation,” the company said in a statement sent by spokesperson James Noonan. “We are focused every day on making our system safer and pursuing our stand that catastrophic wildfires shall stop.”

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