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PG&E, Sonoma County prosecutors reach deal to settle Kincade fire criminal charges

Here’s how PG&E’s $20.25 million damage payment over the Kincade fire breaks down

-$7.5 million in a civil penalty to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office, which it will use to investigate and prosecute future environmental and consumer protection crimes.

-$750,000 to the DA’s office to cover the cost of its investigation and prosecution of the utility over the Kincade fire

-$6 million to Santa Rosa Junior College to invest in local fire safety related higher-educational programs, with $5 million for the College’s Fire Technology Program and another $1 million for its Vegetation Management Training Program

-$6 million for local nonprofit organizations including:

$1 million for Conservation Corps North Bay

$1 million for Fire Safe Sonoma

$500,000 for Nuestra Communidad

$500,000 for Council on Aging’s Meals on Wheels program

$500,000 for Interfaith Shelter Network

$500,000 for the Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma-Marin including for the organization’s work in Roseland

$500,000 for Jameson Humane, a large and small animal rescue program

$300,000 payments to five local health clinics, one in each county supervisorial district

Sonoma County prosecutors settled their criminal case against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. over the company’s role in starting the 2019 Kincade fire with a deal that includes $20.25 million in payments to local institutions and five years of District Attorney oversight of the utility’s local wildfire prevention initiatives.

Under the terms of the deal, prosecutors agreed to drop eight felony charges and 22 misdemeanor counts stemming fromwhat District Attorney Jill Ravitch on Monday called PG&E’s “reckless conduct” that led to the largest wildfire in Sonoma County’s history.

Also Monday, the company announced it would pay $34.5 million to five Northern California counties over its role in last summer’s Dixie fire. Doing so will allow the utility to avoid criminal charges in that case, according to PG&E. The Dixie was the largest single wildfire in California’s recorded history.

Fire investigators traced the start of the Kincade fire to degraded equipment on a tower along that line. Ultimately, the Kincade fire burned more than 77,000 acres, displaced more than 200,000 people through evacuations, and destroyed 174 homes.

PG&E accepted Cal Fire investigators’ conclusion that its tower had started the fire but never admitted guilt that it was criminally negligent in maintaining the line. Utility officials Monday welcomed the settlement in Sonoma County and the Dixie fire agreement.

“We’re welcoming that transparency, accountability and feedback,” spokesperson Lynsey Paulo told The Press Democrat. “This is really increasing a level of partnership with the county,” she said, and “that’s what it’s going to take to make sure that we’re able to make progress on wildfire safety.”

The settlement cut off much of Sonoma County’s public demonstration of why the utility was at fault. After just two days in open court, attorneys for the two sides began negotiating a deal out of public view. The discussions lasted two months. But Ravitch on Monday highlighted the fact that following the Kincade fire, the utility de-energized and took down the faulty line and conducted a review of its sprawling electrical grid to see if they could find any other abandoned lines left energized.

“Doesn't that suggest to you that they realized it really shouldn't be there and shouldn't be energized?” she said. “They didn't just de-energize, they removed it.”

Ravitch on Monday characterized the settlement as a step toward increasing wildfire safety and prevention in Sonoma County. She added that it was the best result her attorneys could secure against the utility behemoth’s considerable financial resources, particularly in a criminal court system that makes the prosecution of corporations difficult.

She also criticized California Attorney General Rob Bonta for refusing to get involved in the Kincade or Dixie fire cases.

“There are those who will say PG&E bought its way out of a criminal prosecution. We hope those people will look at the potential outcome of the conviction and weigh it against this judgment,” Ravitch said. “We also hope that the politicians in Sacramento pass meaningful legislation that gives us the tools we need to hold large corporations accountable.”

The Kincade settlement was submitted to Sonoma County Superior Court criminal Judge Mark Urioste on Friday, and the terms were approved by civil court Judge Pat Broderick. Urioste dismissed the criminal case and PG&E did not plead guilty to any crimes for its role in starting the Kincade fire.

For the next five years, PG&E’s wildfire safety work in six counties Sonoma, and the five counties hit by the Dixie fire — Plumas, Shasta, Lassen, Tehama and Butte — will be overseen by consulting firm Filsinger Energy Partners. The firm has considerable experience reviewing PG&E’s work and is the same company used by the California Public Utilities Commission, which recently faced criticism over its oversight role by the state auditor. In Sonoma County the firm will establish a separate team that reports directly to the DA’s office, prosecutors said.

PG&E will pay for that work, as well as reimbursing the DA $750,000 for attorney and investigators fees on the Kincade case. The court’s orders stipulate that PG&E cannot raise rates to pay for any of the expenses the settlement entailed. PG&E will also have to hire 80 new employees for safety inspection in Sonoma County, or convert independent contractors it uses for many of those services over to full time employees. Hiring employees instead of contractors will improve accountability, Ravitch said. It’s something PG&E has faced criticism for before, including from a federal judge in San Francisco who until late last year had the utility on probation over the deadly 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion.

Here’s how PG&E’s $20.25 million damage payment over the Kincade fire breaks down

-$7.5 million in a civil penalty to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office, which it will use to investigate and prosecute future environmental and consumer protection crimes.

-$750,000 to the DA’s office to cover the cost of its investigation and prosecution of the utility over the Kincade fire

-$6 million to Santa Rosa Junior College to invest in local fire safety related higher-educational programs, with $5 million for the College’s Fire Technology Program and another $1 million for its Vegetation Management Training Program

-$6 million for local nonprofit organizations including:

$1 million for Conservation Corps North Bay

$1 million for Fire Safe Sonoma

$500,000 for Nuestra Communidad

$500,000 for Council on Aging’s Meals on Wheels program

$500,000 for Interfaith Shelter Network

$500,000 for the Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma-Marin including for the organization’s work in Roseland

$500,000 for Jameson Humane, a large and small animal rescue program

$300,000 payments to five local health clinics, one in each county supervisorial district

PG&E will pay a $7.5 million civil penalty to the DA’s office, which it will use to investigate and prosecute future environmental and consumer protection crimes.

Costs keep mounting for PG&E as a result of the Kincade fire, but most of the money has gone to governments and not those who lost homes or other properties to the flames. The other $13 million in damages go to a variety of nonprofits and other institutions, with the biggest winner being the Santa Rosa Junior College. PG&E must give the college $5 million for its Fire Technology Program and another $1 million for its Vegetation Management Training Program.

The company has already paid $31 million in damages to Sonoma County and the cities of Santa Rosa, Windsor, Cloverdale and Healdsburg; and $125 million to the state over the Kincade fire, which was sparked by a piece of faulty equipment and burned more than 77,000 acres.

Nearly two-and-a-half years after the blaze many victims in Sonoma County haven’t seen a dime in damages from the company. The settlement announced Monday did not include any funds for those who lost homes, ranch buildings and other properties and PG&E did not admit guilt to any crimes as a result of the fire. A civil case for many victims is currently set for Nov. in federal court in San Francisco.

In public filings, PG&E has disclosed estimated liabilities as high as $800 million from the fire.

It remains unclear if PG&E avoiding any guilty verdicts over the Kincade fire, or seeing any criminal charges at all in the Dixie fire, will impact those civil verdicts. Ravitch indicated it would be up to victims’ attorneys to secure damage payments for them. But the county DAs allowed PG&E to spread its payments as a result of Monday’s settlement over five years to lead more money for claimants, she said.

After Monday, PG&E faces only one ongoing prosecution over a wildfire — the deadly 2020 Zoggs fire in Shasta County. Criminal procedures in that county continue.

“We respect the leadership of the local DAs, welcome the new level of transparency and accountability afforded by these agreements, and look forward to working together for the benefit of the communities we collectively serve,” PG&E CEO Patti Poppe said in a statement issued Monday.

Sonoma County’s prosecution team was made up of Assistant District Attorney William Brockley, Chief Deputy District Attorney Matt Cheever, Deputy District Attorney Matthew Henning, District Attorney Investigator Matthew Stapleton, Legal Secretary Jeannie Barnes, and Legal Assistant Joanne Miller, according to the news release.

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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