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Public Utilities Commission hires more attorneys to run interference and thwart fraud investigations


May 4, 2015, Source:  San Diego U~T, reporter Jeff McDonald

Aguirre & Severson have issued scores of unasnswered fraud-related PRA requests to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Now we know why they aren't being answered; CPUC has hired private attorneys at public expense to run interference.

CPUC records attorneys tab: $1.1M

Outside firm is responding to more than 200 requests

By Jeff McDonald3:40 p.m.May 4, 2015

What began as a short-term $49,000 contract to help the California Public Utilities Commission respond to an influx of public records requests has grown so that it's costing 22 times the original cap.

Utility regulators plan to pay the Stubbs & Leone law firm at least $1.1 million through 2016 to help review records before they are released to the public or withheld based on legal privilege.

The initial agreement was amended three times, as interest in the commission's backchannel communications with utility executives spiked after the release of emails by Pacific Gas & Electric last year. Those emails showed commissioners intervening in proceedings and helping utilities secure favorable judges in open cases.

Commission officials say the work is "mission critical," and the 10 staff attorneys who process California Public Records Act requests have fallen behind. Critics say the private-sector lawyers are providing cover for regulators who are reluctant to release public documents.

"There is a need for independent and unbiased assistance and clear need for a different, outside perspective given that the requests concern the appropriateness of commission communications with those it regulates," commission lawyer Jason Reiger wrote to the Department of General Services in a Feb. 18 memo justifying the latest increase. "The large dollar amount of this contract is due to the large volume of PRA" requests.

Reiger said the commission received 235 requests in about seven months.

"That's about one new request every day," he wrote. "Many of those requests have been for incredibly broad categories of information."

His memo contained no information about how many of the requests had been fulfilled as required by law. U-T San Diego has requested from the agency an updated accounting of progress toward fulfilling requests, including its own.

The commission's paperwork seeking approval of the outside legal work suggests the workload may die down within 18 months because of factors including former commission President Michael Peevey stepping down and public scrutiny abating with the passage of time.

The Stubbs & Leone lawyers are being paid up to $215 an hour, less than the $882 per hour being paid to the senior attorney for Sheppard Mullin, the law firm given a $5.2 million deal to represent the commission amid three state and federal investigations.

A lawsuit filed against the commission by the city of San Bruno early last year led to the release of the PG&E emails, which regulators cited as the main reason for the original Stubbs & Leone contract.

General Services, the department in charge of approving state contracts, raised questions about the commission's more recent request to boost the Stubbs & Leone retainer to $1.1 million, records show.

Among other things, General Services lawyer Richard Goldberg wanted to know why the commission's justification for the outsourced legal work had changed through the amendment process and why the scope of work expanded.

"While we are sympathetic to the commission's staffing needs, the lack of adequate staff to respond to PRA requests does not justify contracting out, nor does it fit within the Government Code," Goldberg told the commission March 20. "The CPUC has not shown why it cannot add more civil-service attorney positions, or why the additional PRA work not related to the San Bruno civil litigation could not be done by other civil service attorneys, such as those at the (Attorney General's) Office."

Commission officials did not respond to Goldberg's concerns in writing. Instead, they requested a conference call to discuss the issues in greater detail.

The emails released by General Services do not include any written responses following the late March teleconference. Deputy Director Brian Ferguson said lawyers representing the two state agencies worked out their differences over the phone.

"CPUC made its case for the Stubbs & Leone contract amendment and amendment 4 was approved by DGS on April 23," he wrote in an email. "No follow-up memo was involved."

The union that represents thousands of state attorneys challenged the $5.2 million contract awarded to the Sheppard Mullin law firm and expects a ruling from the State Personnel Board later this spring.

The union, California Attorneys, Administrative Law Judges and Hearing Officers in State Employment, has not contested the Stubbs & Leone agreements.

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