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Sempra Services Lobbyists Also Met With San Diego County Supervisors

KPBS previously reported on lobbyist meetings with San Diego city officials that potentially violated state ban

The Sempra Energy building appears in this undated photo.

Credit: Sempra Energy

Above: The Sempra Energy building appears in this undated photo.

California officials said an investigation is still ongoing into whether lobbyists for Sempra Energy's new marketing division, Sempra Services, violated state law by meeting with some San Diego elected officials.

State officials said an investigation is still ongoing into whether lobbyists for Sempra Energy's new marketing division, Sempra Services, violated state law by meeting with some San Diego elected officials.

KPBS previously reported Sempra Services lobbyists met with city of San Diego elected officials, including Mayor Kevin Faulconer and City Councilmembers David Alvarez, Chris Cate and Mark Kersey. At that time, KPBS asked for the calendars of San Diego County Supervisors, but only received the calendar for Supervisor Kristin Gaspar. A county spokesman said the rest would have to be approved as a Public Records Act request.

Now, that request has been filled, and calendars show all four supervisors besides Gaspar met with Sempra Services lobbyists, although some of the meetings were about issues not related to energy.

The reason for the state investigation into Sempra Services revolves around a question of whether it has received full approval from the agency that oversees utilities, the California Public Utilities Commission.

The California Public Utilities Commission has said Sempra and its utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, does not have the final OK to begin lobbying.

RELATED: State Commission Investigating SDG&E For Lobbying Against Community Energy Program

The dispute is over an alternative energy program called community choice, which would allow cities and counties to bypass SDG&E and decide on their own where to buy energy, which could allow them to choose more renewable energy sources.

What is community choice aggregation?

Right now, San Diego Gas & Electric provides power through its system of lines and wires to every city in San Diego County and southern Orange County. SDG&E buys the electricity from a variety of sources, including natural gas plants, hydroelectric dams and wind turbine farms.

If a city goes with community choice aggregation, power would still go through SDG&E’s grid, but the city would buy the energy, not the utility. That allows cities to have more control over how much of their energy comes from renewable sources and the cost for that electricity.

State law prevents utilities from marketing or lobbying on community choice aggregation unless they set up an independent organization that is not funded by ratepayers.

That is what Sempra Energy did by establishing Sempra Services. State officials said the organization does not yet have full approval.

However, people working for Sempra Services have been meeting with San Diego elected officials and their staff anyway. They also spoke about community choice at a recent San Diego County Board of Supervisors meeting, where only Supervisor Dianne Jacob spoke in support of studying the feasibility of community choice.

RELATED: Sempra May Have Broken State Rules By Lobbying On Energy Program

Calendars show that from Jan. 1, 2016 to now, the following meetings with county supervisors took place:

–Supervisor Greg Cox met three times with either Frank Urtasun or Lani Lutar, both Sempra Services lobbyists. But Cox's spokesman said none of the meetings were about community choice or energy-related matters. Instead, they were about homeless issues, San Diego Coastkeeper and the Rancho Guejito development.

–Supervisor Bill Horn met once with Lutar. His spokeswoman did not respond to an email requesting comment, but his calendar notes show the meeting was about "Rancho Guejito update on current agricultural activities and related issues and challenges."

–Supervisor Dianne Jacob met once with Lutar. Her spokesman said the meeting "was not about Sempra or SDG&E," but instead was about "a land-use issue."

–Supervisor Ron Roberts met five times with either Urtasun or Lutar. His spokesman said the meetings were about affordable housing, homelessness, San Diego Coastkeeper, groundwater at Rancho Guejito and "SDG&E’s efforts to install 3,500 electric vehicle chargers at 350 sites."

Lutar is a lobbyist who works on several issues, not just for Sempra Services. Urtasun is the regional vice president for Sempra Services.

SDG&E is being investigated by the California Public Utilities Commission because people affiliated with Sempra Services, including Lutar and Urtasun, are meeting with elected officials and making public comments, according to a spokeswoman for the commission.

She said by email earlier this month that "SDG&E is not in compliance with the California Public Utilities Commission Resolution allowing them to form an Independent Marketing Division with conditions and consequently may not be participating in lobbying activities that could only be performed by the marketing division."

"SDG&E attorneys have argued that under their particular reading of the Resolution they are allowed to lobby," she said. "The California Public Utilities Commission is investigating the facts surrounding their community choice-related communications."

Amber Albrecht, a spokeswoman for SDG&E, said by email that the utility "is not lobbying" on community choice. Instead, she said, their understanding is that the California Public Utilities Commission has approved their independent organization to lobby on community choice.

In August, the California Public Utilities Commission gave initial approval to the organization but said it still needed more information from SDG&E.

Then in December, the commission said marketing and lobbying on community choice was suspended because SDG&E had not given enough information to show the organization is independent enough from the utility.

Albrecht said that proposed changes to SDG&E's independent organization are being reviewed by California Public Utilities Commission staff, but that does not block the organization from operating.

"Staff has no authority to override the California Public Utilities Commission’s resolution," she said. She added that the commission "has no authority" to stop the independent organization "from exercising its First Amendment right to speak, particularly here, where the ban would be applied to control the content of Sempra Services’ speech."

California Public Utilities Commission staff still have not said how long the investigation could last, or what the consequences of it could be.

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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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