PD Editorial: A Sunshine Week reminder of local reporters’ impact

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News item: A federal bankruptcy judge approved PG&E’s plan to raise money to fulfill its promise to pay $25.5 billion to insurers, local governments and wildfire victims.

The decision came Monday in a hearing held by telephone because of the coronavirus outbreak.

For thousands of people whose homes burned in fires blamed on utility equipment, bigger news came a week earlier when FEMA dropped its claim on a share of their settlements.

If it weren’t for some dogged reporting, that claim may have gone unnoticed until it was too late.

In an accompanying column, Dan Walters marks Sunshine Week by detailing some examples of outstanding watchdog journalism by California reporters. To his list, we add the impactful work of Press Democrat Staff Writer Julie Johnson.

She didn’t settle for vague answers offered by bankruptcy lawyers on all sides of the PG&E case when vague references to the federal government were included in an announcement that the utility had settled with fire victims. PG&E had settled separately with insurers and local governments, but the federal government didn’t enter those negotiations.

Johnson started digging through thousands of pages of court filings and discovered that FEMA was demanding almost a third of the money that had been promised to people who lost homes in Northern California’s biggest wildfires.

“The Federal Emergency Management Agency is seeking payment from PG&E for its work clearing debris from burned-out properties and other services it provided to local governments and individuals after the 2017 wildfires in the North Bay and the 2018 Camp fire in Butte County,” she wrote in a Dec. 11 article (“FEMA seeks cut of fire deal”).

“FEMA’s payout,” she continued, “would come from the $13.5 billion pool of funds PG&E has put together to settle all remaining wildfire claims.”

Public agencies exerted pressure on fire victims to participate in the FEMA-sponsored debris-removal program and promised them that the federal agency would accept whatever their insurance policies covered as payment in full.

Under tight deadlines imposed by the government, thousands of people agreed. Then they learned that FEMA wanted $4 billion before they could collect anything from the $13.5 billion victims’ fund.

There’s more at stake here than the federal government’s credibility. Many, perhaps most, fire victims were underinsured, and settlement money may determine whether they are able to rebuild.

After Johnson’s article appeared, three dozen congressmen, including North Bay Reps. Jared Huffman and Mike Thompson, signed a letter to acting FEMA administrator Peter Gaynor challenging the agency’s claim on the victims’ fund. “We believe this decision by FEMA jeopardizes the intended purpose of the fund,” the letter said. Huffman and Thompson followed up by introducing legislation that would bar FEMA from demanding repayment of disaster aid received in good faith.

And, last week, FEMA reduced its claim to $1 billion, agreed to allow victims to collect first and confirmed that it wouldn’t seek repayment from any agency or individual who received financial help from the federal government.

The outcome is a victory for fire victims and a reminder that the public directly benefits from the work done by journalists at The Press Democrat and other news organizations — during Sunshine Week and every other week, too.

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