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San_Bruno_Broken_Pipeline_Explosion.jpgA covert and illegal recording earlier this month by a California Public Utilities Commission director was an effort to intimidate the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, according to a staff report for an Assembly Budget Subcommittee on resources and transportation hearing today.

PUC Energy Division Director Edward Randolph was caught earlier this month recording a briefing for a Senate budget subcommittee hearing at the state Capitol when his smartphone interrupted with an announcement that the recording space on his device was full.

Many of the attendees were surprised and angered that Randolph was recording the off-the-record, private meeting that included representatives of the office of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the Department of Finance and the DRA, which has clashed with PUC leadership.

According to the subcommittee staff report, those in attendance said Randolph was attempting to record DRA officials' interpretation of their responsibilities regarding audit obligations. PUC officials lately have faced continued scrutiny, including from members of the Assembly, over the agency's handling of several special funds.

A Department of Finance audit found "widespread weaknesses within (PUC) budget operations which compromise its ability to prepare and present reliable and accurate budget information."

The committee Wednesday approved a staff proposal to make the DRA its own state department, instead of a division within the CPUC. The DRA works on behalf of utility customers, while the CPUC regulates oil and gas pipelines.

The staff report said "making DRA its own department would more clearly separate the roles of DRA and prevent future intimidation tactics by the CPUC against the DRA."

PUC spokesman Christopher Chow said the utility commission has not taken a position on the issue.

In a subcommittee hearing last week, lawmakers blasted the PUC following a report that questioned the agency's commitment to safety.

The PUC was expected to present its plan for improving the safety culture in a hearing this morning, but subcommittee members said they were unable to do that since they did not receive the utility commission's lengthy report until Tuesday night.

The review of the PUC's practices and internal controls follows a 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people and injured 60. The PUC has not yet assessed PG&E's fine for the blast.

The city of San Bruno filed a legal motion today demanding that PUC President Michael Peevey and Commissioner Michel Florio recuse themselves from an upcoming safety event in San Francisco featuring PG&E executives.

"This is like the defendant in a criminal case taking the judge to play golf together before the judge rules on his case and his penalty," said attorney Steven Meyers of the Meyers Nave law firm, representing the city of San Bruno, in a statement.

The PUC later responded with a statement that it would postpone the event.

"Although the symposium is a forward-looking event and issues related to the CPUC's ongoing PG&E pipeline cases would not be discussed, to eliminate any possible public concern over the fairness of the CPUC's process, the CPUC has decided to postpone the symposium to a future date," the statement said.

Editor's Note, 6:44 p.m.: This post has been updated to add the Public Utilities Commission statement issued this evening.

PHOTO CREDIT: A natural gas line lies broken in San Bruno after a massive explosion. Noah Berger / Associated Press file, 2010



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