As Gov. Jerry Brown travels the nation and world posing grandly as the Anti-Trump and the ultimate champion of the battle against climate change, he’s plainly very conscious of the legacy he will leave behind when he’s termed out for good after next year.
But an email controversy that’s dogged him for almost two years remains, and it may sully the grand record of accomplishment Brown wants to take with him into retirement.
More than a year after the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled that text messages and emails sent by public officials on their personal devices are public records if they deal with public business, Brown has still not moved to end his problem.
No one but him and the recipients knows whether that’s because there’s something untoward in 63 of his administration’s communications with the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) at the time of the 2013 agreement that saddled consumers with 70 percent of the costs for shutting down the ruined San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, about $3.3 billion.
When she was state attorney general, current U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris announced investigations both into that agreement and into whether Brown would have to turn over the emails. Harris is long gone from her former office, Brown having heartily endorsed her Senate bid. Her successor, Xavier Becerra, draws headlines for opposing President Trump at every turn, but refuses to say anything about those two investigations, which he has apparently allowed to fizzle.
The inaction of both Harris and Becerra raises the question of conflict of interest for them. Said Becerra’s press office in an email, “We are the governor’s lawyer … (in this matter).” So the question of whether Brown should be forced to release his administration’s emails is being decided by his own lawyer, which may be why the announced investigation has stalled.
But consumer advocates led by former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre persist in their efforts to learn whether there’s a smoking gun in those emails. It’s already well documented that executives of San Onofre operator Southern California Edison Co. met with former PUC President Michael Peevey (himself a former Edison president) and hashed out the agreement the PUC eventually passed.
Now Aguirre has been boosted by a friend of the court brief from the city of San Bruno, site of the 2010 explosion of a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight persons and destroyed dozens of homes. Well aware that documents show a close relationship between PG&E and officials of the PUC including Peevey, San Bruno officials wonder why no one at PG&E was punished even though the company was convicted of criminal negligence in the pipeline blast.
So the city cites the PUC’s long history of trying to “stonewall the production of documents.” It clearly hopes that if an appeals court orders production of the Brown administration emails, it will also lead to opening of yet more secret communications about PG&E and the San Bruno detonation.
Meanwhile, current PUC President and former Brown advisor Michael Picker ignored a request to answer questions about both cases. Aguirre’s brief in his appeal for release of the Brown administration emails cites conflicting Picker testimony about how he decided to vote for the San Onofre settlement.
“I base my decisions on the evidentiary record of the proceeding,” Picker told a state Assembly committee in 2014. Yet, the PUC later said in refusing to divulge the emails that they reflect “discussions between … Picker and his advisors, the disclosure of which would reveal (his) thought process regarding the … matter.” Picker, of course, did not tell the Assembly committee about those discussions, which may have included communications with Brown.
In short, Picker changed his story, and the Brown administration emails may show why.
Says Maria Severson, Aguirre’s law partner, “The PUC claims the public interest in withholding the records outweighs the public interest in disclosure,” an argument often made by government officials during cover-ups.
But Brown must realize that the emails will eventually emerge, even if it’s years after he leaves office. So if there’s no evidence of wrongdoing in them, why not quit stonewalling and just open them up right now?
Thomas D. Elias is a writer in Southern California. firstname.lastname@example.org
This commentary has been changed since it was first posted to clarify that the 63 emails in question were from the Brown administration and not necessarily from the governor himself.