PG&E calls on donation beneficiaries for support at rate-hike hearings

PG&E calls on donation beneficiaries for support at rate-hike hearings »Play Video

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Amid a looming rate increase proposal, claims that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. asked its customers who have benefited from the utility's charitable donations to attend its statewide rate case hearings were confirmed by the company, an Eyewitness News investigation discovered.

The incidents occurred at planned rate case meetings held by the California Public Utilities Commission - PG&E's state regulator - in several cities in central and northern California in May and June, including Bakersfield and San Bruno, the site of the 2010 PG&E gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people, injured 58 and leveled 38 homes.

"I attended that hearing and was startled," said Connie Jackson, city manager of San Bruno. "Maybe I shouldn’t have been, that PG&E packed the room with advocates for the many charitable organizations, programs that PG&E supports."

"I think it was hard and offensive for the small number of San Bruno residents, victims, who were present that night," she added.

State Sen. Jerry Hill said he disagrees with the practice by PG&E.

"They gave a lot of money to nonprofits, and then they ask nonprofits to come and speak in support of their program and how great PG&E is, all around the same time for the rate increase," Hill said.

PG&E confirmed it asked customers to attend hearings in an interview with Eyewitness News, but denied using force.

"We didn't send anybody," said Denny Boyles, a PG&E spokesman. "We're required to attend each of the public participation hearings, and then we gave the groups that we partnership with across our service territory the opportunity to attend as well.

"We appreciate the fact that so many of them took time out of their days to go down and share the story of their partnership with PG&E," he added.

Money given away in donations by the PG&E Corporation Foundation comes directly from shareholders, not ratepayers, Boyles said, prompting Jackson to question why the company chooses to ask those people to attend rate-case hearings.

"Why would you use a venue of San Bruno, and why would it be necessary to obfuscate the details of a rate application with a lot of talk about scholarships and charitable programs? It’s apples and oranges," Jackson said.

Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco-based utility ratepayer advocacy organization, called the practice "bribery."

"The truth of the matter is, PG&E cannot get community support just based on their merits," Toney said. "They do it by paying off organizations, by buying them off, by giving them small grants so that they will come and sing the praises of PG&E and support their rate increases. We think that is bribery, nothing more."

But, Boyles said the $16 million the PGE Corporation Foundation will give away in charitable donations in 2013 speaks volumes about its shareholders.

"Our shareholders made the decision over the years that they want to be a member of these communities," Boyles said. "They want to take a portion of the money that by right is their's as a return on their investment, and they want to give it back."

Jackson, who became San Bruno city manager in 2003, said she agrees that the company is responsible for contributing to its communities, but wants it to clarify its intentions.

"I think there’s a good argument they have a responsibility to be a participant in the life of the community to make charitable contributions, I don’t dispute that," Jackson said. "What did that have to do with the rate application? Not much that I could tell. I think it served to deflect attention from any real conversation about the validity of the rate application."