Public Watchdogs, a La Mesa-based nonprofit group that has been dogging the California Public Utilities Commission on topics from energy rates to the decommissioning of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, is seeking a new ally: the commission’s own employees.
The organization dispatched more than 1,000 letters to employees of the regulatory agency inviting them to become whistleblowers.
The letter referenced the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion of 2010 and an undisclosed meeting in Poland in 2013 between regulators and utility executives that led to a deal assigning most of the costs of the failed nuclear plant to ratepayers. The letter argued that the commission — which regulates power, water and transit companies — has neglected its oversight responsibilities in favor of the companies it regulates. And it asked employees to consider their options.
“Can you imagine a Public Utilities Commission that is dedicated to safety and justice?” said the letter, sent in August. “A PUC that stands up to utilities on behalf of the public? A PUC that protects you and enforces the law? A PUC that fights utility bailouts and greedy rate hikes? A PUC that doesn’t set rates with illegal back-room deals in Warsaw, Poland?”
The letter, signed by Public Watchdogs Executive Director Charles Langley, urged employees to contact him anonymously, vowing to keep their confidence.
“I’m a whistleblower, too, so I will make sure you are protected,” he wrote.
Langley said his organization obtained an internal staff directory of the commission from a source in the agency and sent 1,056 letters to the work addresses of nearly all employees, from managers to custodians.
The commission declined to comment on Langley’s letter, but noted that California law protects whistleblowers and provides a system for their complaints.
“The State of California has its own whistleblower system already set up,” Christopher Chow, a public information officer for the commission, said by email. “The California Whistleblower Protection Act authorizes the California state auditor to receive complaints from state employees and members of the public who wish to report an improper governmental activity. The act also provides protections from retaliation for any employee or applicant for employment who reports an improper activity.”
Robert Fellmeth, executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego, said the solicitation is legal, but said employees are forbidden to disclose information about ongoing rate-setting adjudications.
“What they’re sending out doesn’t violate anything, because they’re not giving information, they’re not asking for specific information,” he said. “They should be aware that there is a proper limitation on what people involved in an adjudicative process can tell them.”
Langley, a former public advocate for Utility Consumers’ Action Network, left that organization in 2013 after reporting alleged financial improprieties. As a result of his complaints, he said, the organization ended a project he was working on and let him know he was no longer welcome there.
“I was constructively terminated,” he said. “They basically made it impossible for me to work there, and I had to quit.”
His own experience, and the cost to his career, taught him how risky it is for whistleblowers to come forward openly, he said.
“The message that I want to go out to potential whistleblowers is that if you provide documents to Public Watchdogs, you will stay protected; you will remain anonymous,” he said. “Usually, the moment you blow the whistle, it’s the last job you ever get. Everybody claps you on the back and says, ‘hey, you’re a hero.’ But the whistleblowers lose their homes, their hair, their minds and ultimately their sanity.”
After leaving UCAN, Langley founded Public Watchdogs in 2013, as information emerged about the failed nuclear power plant.
“My original concern was San Onofre was the tip of an iceberg of corruption at the PUC,” he said. “This is such a byzantine issue to explain. So I formed the organization with the intent of protecting the public from the Public Utilities Commission.”
San Onofre closed in 2012 after abnormal tube wear in newly installed steam generators led to radiation leaks. In 2014, the commission approved a negotiated deal between plant owner Southern California Edison and consumer groups that assigned 70 percent of the $4.7 billion cost for the failed plant to customers — rather than company shareholders.
In 2015, reporting by U-T Watchdog revealed that the framework for that agreement was put in place in 2013, at the undisclosed meeting abroad between an Edison executive and two CPUC officials.
The utility is now mired in debate over decommissioning the plant as community groups and some lawmakers oppose a plan to bury spent nuclear fuel on site. They argue that the location — on a fault line at the coast along a major highway — is not secure, and the vessels that will contain the waste are inadequate.
“We’ve been part of a chorus of voices that have been crying in the wilderness, trying to get the attention of policy makers and politicians, because we believe this solution of burying the waste on the beach is a clear and present danger to the public’s health and safety,” Langley said.
Langley said he aims to cast a wide net with the letter, reaching employees who might share his misgivings about the commission. He isn’t seeking specific information, he said, but opening the door for employees at the regulatory agency to share anything that sheds light on its internal processes.
Chow said he’s unaware of any confidential information that has been leaked, and Langley declined to say whether anyone has responded yet.
“All we do is extend an invitation to those people within the agency that may have knowledge or information that the public has a right to know,” said Public Watchdogs board member Nina Babiarz. “We’re not going to know what the result of that is until we hear from them.”
Fellmeth said it could be an effective way to shine light on possible problems at the regulatory agency provided they stay clear of ongoing rate-setting proceedings.
“Providing a conduit for people to report illegality or public policy problems is good,” Fellmeth said. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Langley’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.