PG&E Pleads GUILTY To Starting Deadly Camp Fire, Will Take $$$ From Victims To Pay Its Fine
Pacific Gas & Electric announced on Monday that it would plead guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter and one count of unlawfully starting the Camp Fire for its role in starting the deadliest fire in California history.
So for a brief moment it looked like, perhaps, the utility giant was trying to do the right thing.
But, obviously, that was not the case. And so we learned Wednesday that, over the objections of prosecutors, PG&E was trying to pay $4 million to the state of California out of a compensation fund for fire victims.
California's 2018 Camp Fire was the deadliest fire in state history. By the end of the 17 days that it burned in November of 2018, 85 people were dead, 153,000 acres of land were decimated, and the town of Paradise was destroyed.
Last year, regulators in California determined that the fire was caused by PG&E equipment.
As part of a plea deal reached between PG&E and the Butte County District Attorney's Office, PG&E has agreed to plead guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter, pay up to $4 million in fines and costs, and pay for the restoration of the Miocene Canal. The maximum fine for starting a fire is $50,000 and each manslaughter count carries a fine of up to $10,000.
PG&E will also pay the DA's office $500,000 to recover costs related to the criminal investigation. The company will also pay up to $15 million to rebuild the Miocene Canal, which had supplied water to the area before it was destroyed in the fire.
Prior to Monday's guilty plea, PG&E set up a $13.5 billion compensation fund for victims of the fire. Now, we're learning that despite strong objections from Butte County DA Michael Ramsey, PG&E plans to take the money for its fines to the state from that fund.
Ramsay told Courthouse News that "he strongly disagrees with PG&E's position, but he also has no power to dictate how the company pays its fine." However, he did not appear to comment on why he did not insist on otherwise as part of the plea deal, saying,
Really one of our overriding concerns is that the $13.5 billion set aside for the civilian victims would remain whole[.] That was our understanding.
A PG&E spokesman tried to minimize the fact that the money for the fine would be taken away from fire victims.
PG&E spokesman Ari Vanrenen confirmed the $4 million fine will be "administered as part of the Fire Victim Trust." However, he also emphasized that PG&E will pay over $500 million to Butte County in a separate $1 billion settlement with local government agencies. Under the terms of that deal, the town of Paradise, which was destroyed in the Camp Fire, will get $270 million. Butte County will get $253 million, and the Paradise Parks and Recreation Department will receive $47.5 million.
"We cannot replace all that the fire destroyed, but our hope is that this plea agreement, along with our significant and ongoing rebuilding efforts, will help the community move forward from this tragic incident," Vanrenen said.
Because of its legal liability, PG&E has been reorganizing in bankruptcy court since early 2019. The company has received tens of billions of dollars in claims for starting the fire. At a telephone bankruptcy hearing on Wednesday, PG&E lawyer Stephen Karotkin told the court PG&E "would alter its required disclosure statement to inform stakeholders of a dispute over how the fine should be paid."
Despite the guilty plea, no individual executives at PG&E will be criminally prosecuted, meaning no one will go to jail for starting this deadly and devastating fire, upsetting a number of the victims. DA Ramsay said his office had looked into individual criminal charges but found they couldn't be sustained under existing law.
The DA said it was not "from lack of trying" that no PG&E executives were individually prosecuted. The evidence showed a culture at PG&E that went well beyond any one individual or group of people, he said.
"Under California law, you have to show that individuals in the corporation made an intentional decision, knowing the outcome would be a death at the time they made that decision," he said. "We could not show that because our evidence was going back decades."
That's right. Our legal system is set up so that individuals can avoid liability for a horrific corporate culture going back decades that literally kills people.
Currently, there is a deadline of May 15 for fire victims to vote on whether to approve PG&E's bankruptcy plan.
MAYBE UTILITIES SHOULD BE RUN BY THE STATE SO SHIT LIKE THIS DOESN'T HAPPEN ANYMORE.
Just a thought.