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Deadline Passes In Probe Of Secret San Onofre Deal

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Photo credit: Associated Press

Surfers walk along a beach nearby the San Onofre nuclear power plant, July 19, 2012.

Customers may now have little recourse for accountability for how they were handed a $3.3 billion bill for the San Onofre nuclear power plant’s shutdown after a radiation leak in 2012.

While California Attorney General Kamala Harris gathers steam in her campaign to replace U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, the statute of limitations has run out for her to file charges for a secret meeting in Poland that spawned a San Onofre settlement.

Harris highlights her role as a prosecutor for California consumers in her U.S. Senate campaign speeches.

Photo credit: Associated Press

California Attorney General Kamala Harris gives a news conference in Los Angeles, Nov. 30, 2010.

“Many of you here know I have been a prosecutor and a public servant my entire career,” Harris told her supporters at a state Democratic Party gathering earlier this year. “I’ve only had one client: the people of California.”

But some consumer advocates worry the attorney general is letting the people down in her own inquiry into why customers are paying $3.3 billion for the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station’s closure following the 2012 radioactive leak. Harris missed the deadline for bringing a key criminal charge in the case in March. Now, customers may have little recourse for accountability over the costs and where responsibility lies for the path that led to the radiation leak.

The linchpin of Harris’ probe is the now infamous meeting in Poland between an executive from San Onofre majority owner Southern California Edison and former California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey. The secret session between the two men produced a pact that closely resembled the final San Onofre settlement, including the multi-billion dollar charges to customers.


A Search Warrant Issued During The San Onofre Probe

A Search Warrant Issued During The San Onofre P...

A search warrant issued in September 2015 for email records belonging to Stephen Pickett, the former executive vice president of external relations at Southern California Edison. Here, Harris’ investigative team states that it is prohibited during a probe to have ex parte communications.

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It also ended an investigation underway at the California Public Utilities Commission into who bore responsibility for the nuclear plant’s premature demise and who should pay.

Harris’ investigative team has stated in court papers that it is prohibited during a probe to have ex parte communications, such as the secret Poland meeting. Anyone who knowingly engages in those private contacts could be guilty of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice, which is a felony. However, the statute of limitations for conspiracy to obstruct justice is three years after the offense. The legal clock ran out last month on the secret Poland meeting that happened March 2013.

Harris uncovered evidence of the Poland meeting more than a year ago. San Diego consumer lawyer Mike Aguirre said he’s confounded Harris hasn’t yet brought any criminal charges in the case.

“Why are we seeing no progress?” he asked. “I guess that’s the big question.”

Aguirre suggested Harris is stalling the San Onofre probe until her U.S. Senate campaign is finished because it could hurt powerful fellow Democrats.

A Harris spokesman released the following statement in response to questions:

“No government agency, and no public utilities company is above the law. While we cannot disclose details of any ongoing criminal investigations – this investigation will go where the evidence takes us, and any potential charges would be filed on the facts of the case, and not an election cycle.”

Concerns about Harris’ investigations into state utility regulators and power companies have surfaced once before. Harris opened a criminal probe after the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that left eight people dead in Northern California.

Photo credit: Associated Press

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, calls on lawmakers to approve his bill to ensure greater transparency of the California Public Utilities Commission, Jan. 26, 2016.

But she did not bring criminal charges in the case despite evidence that Pacific Gas & Electric had failed to follow safety rules for the pipeline's operation. A Harris spokesman said instead, her office became part of a joint task force with federal investigators.

“We should have seen some state charges,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, whose district includes San Bruno. “The state of California certainly is proud of its judicial system, and I think it would have been a great statement that California would take the lead in prosecuting these cases.”

The U.S. Justice Department stepped in with criminal indictments in the case after the state statute of limitations in the San Bruno case expired.

It’s not clear if San Diego’s U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy might do the same in the San Onofre settlement investigation.

“I don’t know enough about the facts to be able to render a decision, or give you an opinion on that,” Duffy told KPBS.

Editor's note: After publication, a spokesman from the California Attorney General's office added to his statement, “...the statute of limitations has not passed. This is a comprehensive investigation and the law does not foreclose our pursuit of charges if charges are appropriate and justified."

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Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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