California governor names former aide to lead troubled state utility commission

Government And Institutions Associated Press

Gov. Jerry Brown named a former adviser on Tuesday to be the next head of California's troubled utilities commission, replacing a regulatory chief accused of back-channel dealings with utilities.

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Michael Picker, a former adviser to Brown on renewable energy and a former board member of a California utility, was Brown's pick to lead the California Public Utilities Commission, the governor's office said in a statement.

The appointment requires state lawmakers' approval.

Picker would replace Michael Peevey as commission president. Peevey announced in October he would not seek reappointment when his term expires at the end of December, after 12 years on the board.

Emails made public this year by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., California's largest power utility, described Peevey and PG&E officials holding repeated private discussions on rate cases, penalties and other PG&E regulatory matters before the commission, as well as Peevey soliciting donations from the utility for a commission celebration and for a political campaign backed by the governor. Peevey has made no public comment on the conversations contained in the emails.

The email disclosures stemmed from federal investigations and public criticism over a 2010 PG&E pipeline blast that killed eight people in a San Francisco suburb. The National Transportation Safety Board said lax oversight by the state utilities commission was one reason for the disaster.

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Federal prosecutors have indicted PG&E for alleged obstruction of justice in that investigation. PG&E says federal and state prosecutors have since informed the utility that they are also examining private communications between state utility regulators and PG&E.

Mark Toney, head of The Utility Reform Network, a public-advocacy group that has been critical of the CPUC and PG&E, said he welcomed Picker's nomination as the board's leader.

"We expect that he's going to stop the backroom deals and start making the decisions based on actual evidence," Toney said.

A Brown aide, Evan Westrup, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Brown's expectations of board transparency under Picker. Brown has publicly defended Peevey, describing him this summer as a man who gets things done.

In a separate interview with The Associated Press this summer, Brown described the emails as "troubling."

Brown noted then that state and federal prosecutors were looking into the communications, and added, "I can tell you, based on my own experience, there are conversations that go on in all these regulatory bodies. It's different than courts. There are rules on it and the rules should be enforced."

Brown first appointed Picker as a commission member earlier this year. Brown on Tuesday also appointed Liane Randolph, a staffer at the state Natural Resources Agency, to the commission.

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Associated Press Writer Juliet Williams contributed to this report.