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PUC'S Process For Hiring Defense Lawyers Amid Probes Challenged

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PUC'S Process For Hiring Defense Lawyers Amid Probes Challenged
Two San Diego attorneys sued the California Public Utilities Commission this week, arguing it was illegal for the agency to hire in secret a law firm to represent the commission in state and federal investigations.

Two San Diego attorneys are suing the embattled California Public Utilities Commission for hiring criminal defense lawyers in secret.

Attorney Maria Severson and her law partner, former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre, sued the PUC this week arguing the agency illegally signed a contract with the law firm of Sheppard Mullin by keeping the decision-making process out of public view.

“There is no public record as to who has requested the criminal defense,” Severson said. “And the commission did not take a public vote making certain findings that it is in the best interest of the public entity to provide such a defense. That’s unlawful under our government code.”

PUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said the State Contract Manual authorizes the hiring of outside counsel, but she did not address whether the agency was required to do that in public.

The PUC is the target of federal and state investigations. The probes got underway after the agency released thousands of emails, some of which depicted close contact between former PUC President Michael Peevey and Commissioner Mike Florio and Pacific Gas & Electric executives over safety issues and other matters.

Investigators found notes during a search of Peevey’s home in January that showed the ex-commissioner had outlined a potential settlement deal with a Southern California Edison executive in 2013 for the permanent shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear power plant north of Oceanside.

Severson and Aguirre are asking in their lawsuit that a judge force the PUC to respond to their public records act requests for correspondence dealing with San Onofre settlement.

“We know records exist that have not been produced,” Severson said.

San Onofre closed in 2013 after a radiation leak.

Emails obtained so far by Severson and Aguirre show that Commissioner Florio discussed that leak with an Edison executive. In one email to Edison Senior Vice President Les Starck, Florio wrote about the root cause of the tube leak at San Onofre. Florio then refers to his “regular Wednesday call” with Starck.

Last year, a nearly $5 billion settlement was reached between the PUC and utility that requires customers to pay for the bulk of the San Onofre closure costs.

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