Ethics and public policy

This semester I'm teaching a class at UC Berkeley on U.S. climate policy, law, and politics. The class is built around reading controversial lawsuits, which puts a certain critical distance between what we do in the classroom and the raw politics underneath the surface. The parties' positions have been summarized, abstracted, and occasionally misunderstood by lawyers and judges; in every case, the outcomes have already been decided

But sometimes the connection between politics and public policy hits a little closer to home, and there's very little distance at all. 

Case in point: I couldn't help but notice that the former Chairman of the California Public Utilities Commission, Michael Peevey, will be honored at a fundraiser tomorrow night for UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy, on whose advisory board he serves. 

For those who haven't been paying attention to ex-Commissioner Peevey's woes, the former head of the CPUC stepped down from his post in December following a judge-shopping scandal connected to fines levied against PG&E for the tragic 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno. Recently-released emails between senior PG&E executives, Commissioner Peevey's staff, and even fellow Commissioner Mike Florio indicate a relationship between the CPUC and their regulated utilities that is uncomfortably close—and at times, potentially illegal (see here and here for the emails, which cover a great many topics in addition to the San Bruno dispute). The CPUC's harshest critics, like State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) blame lax oversight during Mr. Peevey's tenure for contributing the San Bruno disaster, which killed eight people and leveled an entire neighborhood.  

"Is you taking notes on a criminal f***ing conspiracy?"
—Stringer Bell, The Wire

At the outset of the scandal, PG&E fired several top executives and the CPUC has reassigned key staff; then-Commissioner Peevey's chief of staff, Carol Brown, resigned, too. Many are now calling for California to reform its ex parte rules to discourage the kinds of backroom discussions that have eroded the public's trust in the CPUC. For example, my colleague Steve Weissman (a former CPUC administrative law judge, or ALJ) and his co-author Deborah Behles have written a report that finds California ex parte standards lax in comparison to other states; they offer some helpful recommendations for stronger rules and improved transparency. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this isn't just matter of reducing the flow of uncomfortably friendly emails between a for-profit company and its economic regulator—although that's a huge problem in its own right, of course. It's also about whether PG&E's shareholders will be responsible for a $1.4 billion fine for its negligent role in the San Bruno disaster.

That question is now before the CPUC, which has yet to take a vote in a process that has been fundamentally tainted by politics. PG&E fired its Vice President for Regulatory Relations, Brian Cherry, who lobbied CPUC staff and commissioners to replace a disfavored ALJ in the San Bruno penalty proceedings with a friendly alternative; the utility also fired Cherry's former boss, Thomas Bottorff—albeit with the kind of pink slip that comes with a $1.1 million severance package on the way out the door. 

While many of the disclosed emails recount private meetings between Mr. Peevey and utility executives, the most damning were not sent directly to or from Mr. Peevey's official account. Yet Mr. Peevey apparently remains at the center of the investigation into possible wrongdoing at the CPUC. 

Less than two weeks ago, law enforcement officials executed a warrant to search Mr. Peevey's Los Angeles home, seizing computers and files in connection with the ongoing controversy. The San Diego Union Tribute reviewed a copy of the search warrant and a list of seized materials, which the paper says indicate that the Attorney General's Office suspects Mr. Peevey of committing one or more felonies. 

"Speaking truth to power"
—Unofficial Goldman School motto

Meanwhile, the Goldman School of Public Policy is getting ready to honor Commissioner Peevey at tomorrow's fundraising dinner. From the San Francisco Chronicle

State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), who has frequently criticized the utilities commission, said of the fundraiser, “It’s unbelievable and it’s shameful. It’s an embarrassment to the people of California, especially to the families of the eight people killed in San Bruno, which was due in part to his negligence.

“We talked to the Goldman School about this, and they said they talked about canceling this. But then they said they would just weather the storm,” Hill said. “What is the message they are trying to send here? Whatever it is, it’s the wrong one.”

Henry Brady, the school’s dean, said Wednesday that the school had never sought to cancel the event. Peevey has a long record of public service, and understandably drew attacks in the 12 years he served as commission president for his stances on controversial matters, Brady said.

“That’s the standard for a public servant these days,” Brady said. “We like to recognize public servants who have taken on tough issues.”

Of course, both the Goldman School and Mr. Peevey are free to recognize whatever they wish. And in fairness, Mr. Peevey voluntarily left his position at the end of his term; at this point, he hasn't been accused of a crime, let alone convicted. 

Moreover, there is some truth to what Dean Brady says about Mr. Peevey's record. The former Commissioner is widely regarded as a champion of renewable energy and energy efficiency, having presided over the development of some of the boldest clean electricity policies in the country. For example, Ralph Cavanagh, the Co-Director of NRDC's Energy Program, hailed Mr. Peevey's tenure at the CPUC as "the strongest environmental record ever created by a California commissioner"—and if that isn't high praise from the environmental community, I don't know what is. 

Still, I'm shocked that this is happening. Standing by a public figure who generates controversy is a very different thing than honoring the suspect of a rapidly evolving criminal investigation. 

Many of my best students—and many of tomorrow's public servants and business leaders—are MPP candidates at the Goldman School. I'm especially curious to hear from them. What kind of message does tomorrow night's dinner send about ethical standards in public service? Even if Mr. Peevey is ultimately cleared of all wrongdoing, is now the time to honor him for his public service? 

Update (March 20, 2015): 

According to the San Francisco Chroniclethe Goldman School of Public Policy announced that it won't accept the funds raised at Mr. Peevey's dinner:

“The dean felt that given the perceptions that exist, as a result of misunderstandings or misrepresentations … that it was not in the best interest of the school to accept any excess funds that might have been generated by the event,” [UC Berkeley spokesman Dan] Mogulof said.

Mr. Mogulof also said that Mr. Peevey will no longer serve on the GSPP Advisory Board.

Although it must be hard to turn down funding, this was the right decision. Congratulations to Berkeley for making a tough call.