SACRAMENTO, Calif. —
A PG&E power line riddled with safety problems sparked the 2018 Camp Fire, killing 85 people in Congressman Doug LaMalfa’s, R-Richvale, district. LaMalfa accepted his next campaign donation from PG&E just five months later, and he wasn’t alone.
An ABC10 investigation of PG&E’s federal political spending found the majority of California’s congressional delegation continued to accept money from PG&E’s federal Political Action Committees (PAC) even after the monopoly was convicted of federal crimes and blamed for sparking wildfires that killed 109 people between 2015-2018.
Those deaths occurred in the districts of five different members of Congress: Reps. LaMalfa, Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, and Mike Thompson, R-St. Helena.
All five continued to accept PG&E donations in 2019 after the Camp Fire leveled the town of Paradise. None of the five indicated a willingness to give up the money they took.
Three members of the California delegation decided to donate the $59,000 they received from PG&E to charity after ABC10 reached out for comment, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
PG&E money was also donated to the House’s highest-ranking Republican, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. Like most of the members who received this money, McCarthy did not respond to questions about the $30,000 he accepted from PG&E.
Pelosi’s decision contrasts with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has repeatedly declined to answer ABC10’s questions about whether he will return the $208,400 PG&E donated to help him win the governor’s office last year.
Newsom has insisted that the funds don’t sway his decisions.
"If the suggestion is somehow I'm influenced by that, you're wrong," Newsom said recently at a press conference.
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Blackouts, blazes, and campaign money from a criminal company
There’s nothing illegal about any of the campaign contributions made by PG&E, or a politician accepting the money, even though the company itself is a convicted federal criminal.
In 2016, a jury found PG&E guilty of six federal felonies because of the San Bruno gas explosion, including obstruction of the investigation into what happened. That disaster killed eight people in September 2010. A federal judge sentenced PG&E to five years of probation in January 2017, and the company remains under court supervision today.
The planned blackouts that have cut power to millions of people who live in PG&E’s coverage area are a result of the judge in that case pushing PG&E to do whatever it has to do so its equipment doesn't spark another fire like the one that destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018.
State fire investigators named PG&E equipment as the cause of six deadly wildfires in recent years:
Butte Fire, Sept. 9, 2015: 2 dead
Nuns Fire, Oct. 8, 2017: 3 dead
Atlas Fire, Oct. 8, 2017: 6 dead
Cascade Fire, Oct. 8, 2017: 4 dead
Redwood Valley Fire, Oct. 8, 2017: 9 dead
Camp Fire, Nov. 8, 2018: 85 dead
Federal campaign finance data reveals that 29 of California’s 53 House members and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, continued to accept PG&E money in 2019 after all of these fires burned.
In addition, ABC10’s analysis of this data shows that 44 members of both chambers from California took a combined $478,000 from PG&E after the company began serving time for its six federal felonies. That’s eight out of every 10 members of the state’s delegation. That mirrors the percentage of state lawmakers who took PG&E’s money in the same time frame, as previously reported by ABC10.
Representatives of the 109 people who died are all keeping PG&E's money: Here's what they told us
None of the five Congress members who represent the 109 people who died in PG&E-caused wildfires plan to return or donate the combined $58,000 they received from PG&E’s PAC.
Republican Doug LaMalfa, who represents Paradise in Congress, did not directly address the question of whether it was right to accept PG&E’s money after the Camp Fire killed 85 people in his district.
LaMalfa “believes that the PG&E company must take responsibility for fires attributed to the lack of maintenance of their lines and facilities and that the extremist environmental policies that have stood in the way of fire-preventing forest management must be reversed,” his campaign manager Dave Gillard told ABC10.
Democrat Jared Huffman represents the area where nine people died in the 2017 Redwood Valley Fire, which the state blames on PG&E power lines.
“Campaign contributions never influence my policy decisions. I pull no punches with PG&E or anyone else,” Huffman said in a written reply to our questions about the $10,500 he received from PG&E. “My record speaks for itself.”
Huffman’s district was also burned by the 2017 Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 people and is the subject of a civil suit seeking to hold PG&E liable.
That fire also burned portions of Democrat Mike Thompson’s district.
Thompson also represents areas that burned in the 2017 Atlas and Nuns Fires, which killed nine people. He told ABC10 that the $25,000 he received from PG&E’s PAC “is not an indication of my support for the company, nor does it influence my work in Congress.”
Democrat John Garamendi, who represents areas burned by the 2017 Atlas and Cascade Fires that killed a combined 10 people, did not directly address the $5,000 he accepted from PG&E. In a written statement, Garamendi said PG&E “must be held responsible” for the deaths and that he’s willing to “push back” when PG&E puts people at risk, while adding that “PG&E is a critically important entity for our state, and I will work with them to ensure our state receives proper and reliable access to energy.”
Republican Tom McClintock, who received $4,500 from PG&E and represented the two people who died in the 2015 Butte Fire, did not respond by ABC10’s deadline for this story.
The decisions to keep PG&E’s money came as a shock to some who follow campaign finance issues.
“I’m surprised we’re not seeing more of [PG&E’s] money being returned or given away,” said Brendan Quinn with the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which runs the political spending database OpenSecrets.org. “[When] the Harvey Weinsten scandal broke, we saw a lot of people giving that money not necessarily back to him, but away, to women’s shelters or things like that. I’m surprised we’re not seeing more of that.”
Both senators are keeping their PG&E money, too
California’s U.S. Senators represent the entire state, encompassing all 109 deaths in the fires blamed on PG&E.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s, D-Calif., office did not respond to our request for comment on the $21,500 she took. Fellow Democrat Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who’s running for the Democratic presidential nomination, took $1,000 from PG&E in early 2017. That was before the bulk of the wildfire fatalities but after the criminal convictions.
Harris was well aware of PG&E’s crimes. As California’s state attorney general, she did not bring state charges against PG&E or any of its officers but did coordinate with federal prosecutors to charge the company with felonies. She was quoted in the Department of Justice press release announcing PG&E’s criminal convictions.
“[Harris] has made it abundantly clear that she believes PG&E has failed California and must be forced to face consequences,” said spokesman Chris Harris.
Harris’ office pointed us to a bill she introduced last week that aims to block bankrupt utilities like PG&E from paying bonuses to executives. The bill has yet to be scheduled for any sort of hearing.
Who gave their money back?
Pelosi’s staff told ABC10 the $26,000 of PG&E money she received would be donated equally to six fire-related charities: the United Way of the Wine Country’s Kincade Fire Fund, Redwood Credit Union’s Community Fund, the California Fire Foundation, the American Red Cross, Rebuild Paradise; and Rebuild North Bay.
Campaign spokesperson Jorge Aguilar told ABC10 Pelosi was donating away the money because “utilities must be held accountable for mismanaged power shutoffs, minimize the extent of shutoffs to the greatest degree possible, harden the grid, and prioritize public safety and wildfire victims.”
Two of the charities confirmed to ABC10 that they received their checks on Wednesday. Rebuild North Bay and Rebuild Paradise both plan to have their boards vote soon on whether to accept the donations.
Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, plans to donate all $30,000 she received from PG&E to two of the charities on Pelosi’s list.
"Campaign contributions do not impact the work I undertake in Washington,” Matsui said in a written statement. “I am a strong supporter of bold climate action and structural changes to our energy infrastructure, like the Green New Deal, to prevent these tragedies from happening again.”
Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, plans to donate the $3,000 he received from PG&E. His staff did not immediately respond to our questions about which charities will get the money but said that the Congressman also returned a $1,000 check from PG&E last month before we asked about the money.
“Previously, I hoped to be able to work with PG&E,” DeSaulnier wrote in a statement. “However, it has now become clear that the company is more interested in its shareholders than its customers and public safety. For that reason, I stopped taking campaign contributions from PG&E in October.”
Federal campaign finance records also showed that Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, returned a $500 donation, her only PG&E contribution for 2019, a month after it was first received. Her office did not address the $6,500 she received in the 2018 campaign cycle in response to our questions.
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How the donations work
Under California state law, companies can and do donate corporate dollars directly to candidates. In PG&E’s case, corporate dollars flowed directly into the campaigns of the governor and eight out of every 10 sitting state lawmakers.
To legally give to federal candidates, corporations have to set up Political Action Committees (PAC) instead of donating from their corporate bank accounts.
Unlike Super PACs, traditional PACs, such as the one PG&E uses, have to abide by a $5,000 contribution limit per election. Primary elections and general elections both count, which allows traditional PACs to donate up to $10,000 per two-year campaign cycle to members of Congress.
PG&E’s PAC did more than donate to candidate campaigns, though. The PG&E PAC also gave to some members’ leadership PACs. Leadership PACs are funds designed to allow members of Congress to donate to their friends to build support for their bids to run powerful committees or seek top leadership posts.
In effect, this allows PG&E to donate up to $20,000 per election cycle to each member instead of $10,000. This also means that the PAC can give federal candidates $5,000 per year to their campaigns.
The PAC funds have to be raised by the company in the form of donations, usually from company executives and employees.
“Contributions from PG&E to candidates are not ratepayer nor corporate dollars,” company spokesperson Brandi Merlo said in an email, adding that the power company's PAC has a “long history of making fully disclosed contributions to a diverse array of federal candidates who are free to accept or redirect the funds as they see fit.”
Companies are allowed to deduct these political donations directly from the paychecks of participating employees. In PG&E’s case, federal records show former CEO Geisha Williams was a leading contributor, making regular monthly donations for hundreds of dollars apiece.
Though the money had to be raised from PG&E’s employees, the PG&E PAC was created in an office on the 8th floor of the company’s headquarters building on Beale Street in San Francisco.
The money goes to help influence Congress to enact laws that are friendly to the company’s interests. PG&E’s monopoly is granted by the state government, but it must also follow federal regulations to operate high-voltage transmission lines like the one that sparked the Camp Fire.
The PAC funds are entirely controlled by the company and its donations to politicians are solely for the benefit of PG&E.
“That’s gonna be the name on the check,” Quinn said.
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