As Investigations Grow, California Senate Considers Top Utilities Regulator Confirmation

Stonewalling legislators when you have to be confirmed by their colleagues is usually not a good idea but that is the approach Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, appears to be taking. 

In December, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Picker, who promised transparency and accountability.  He replaced Michael Peevey, who was run out of office as news emerged of cozy relationships between him and utilities and accusations of improper influence in decision-making. The Senate Rules Committee has a hearing scheduled Aug. 19 to confirm the appointment. 

Picker has rebuffed the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Commerce, which since March has asked for more details on the CPUC’s sign off on the  $4.7 billion settlement to close the San Onofre nuclear power plant. The deal between Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric saw most of the cost falling on ratepayers. Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, the chair of the committee, has set another deadline for the CPUC to turn over documents on the same day Picker is slated to be confirmed. 

The CPUC president has blamed the delay on federal and state investigations into alleged improper back-channel communications with utilities and CPUC regulators related to the deal. Regulators have also been criticized for improper communications with Pacific Gas & Electric Co., including over how much to fine PG&E for the 2010 explosion of a natural gas transmission line. 

A judge ruled this week that SCE and the CPUC violated ex parte communications rules. Administrative Judge Melanie M. Darling said the utility’s officials engaged in 10 unreported exchanges between March of 2013 and June 2014, several of which were between Peevey and SCE’s then-Executive Vice President of External Relations, Stephen Pickett. A third man who attended the meetings between Pickett and Peevey has given statements contradicting Peevey on what was spoken about. SCE may have to pay up to $34 million for the violations if the decision is upheld. 

Aside from Assembly committee controversy, Picker is also being investigated by the California Fair Political Practices Commission, according to the UT San Diego. The FPPC wants to know where of tens of thousands of dollars Picker solicited for a tribute dinner honoring Peevey went. It was initially meant to go to the University of California Berkeley. But after the investigations became public, the funds were reportedly sent elsewhere. Picker has declined to say where, the newspaper said. 

Neither Picker's refusal to release information to the Assembly committee nor the FPPC investigation are likely to derail his confirmation by the Senate Rules Committee. While Rules has the power to reject appointments, it rarely if ever uses that power if a same-party governor appoints the nominee. Another CPUC commissioner, Liane M. Randolph, is also scheduled to be confirmed. 

At the very least, the committee should demand that the agency produce the documents and commit to doing its regulatory business out in the open. 

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