Wine Country Fires Put PG&E in Prosecutors' Crosshairs Again

(Bloomberg) -- The devastating wildfires that burned through northern California last year may once again expose PG&E Corp. to criminal charges.

Investigators with California’s fire agency on Friday said they’re asking county prosecutors to look into evidence of alleged violations of state law with eight of the 12 fires found to have been sparked by its equipment.

The latest scrutiny of the utility comes 21 years after it was convicted of tree-trimming violations in connection with a fire in the Sierra Nevada mountains and less than two years after it was found guilty of violating safety standards in the wake of a natural gas pipeline explosion in a city near San Francisco that killed eight people.

State law requires trees to be trimmed a certain distance from power lines. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection investigators said several of last year’s Wine Country fires were started when trees or limbs came into contact with PG&E power lines.

In the 1997 case, PG&E was convicted of 739 misdemeanor counts of criminal negligence for a pattern of failing to trim trees near its power lines -- which at the time was the biggest criminal case ever against the state’s largest utility and carried a maximum fine of $2 million, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle. The newspaper also cited previous prosecutions of the utility from other wildfires.

In the pipeline-related case, a federal judge issued the maximum fine allowed, $3 million, and in an unusual punishment for a corporate crime, the company was ordered to place full-page ads in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Wall Street Journal explaining its offenses and what it was doing to prevent future wrongdoing. In addition, the utility committed to spending almost $3 million to advertise on TV, which the company said amounted to about 12,500 60-second spots.

The district attorneys in the counties of Sonoma, Lake, Napa and Humboldt will now decide whether to press charges for eight of the Wine Country fires.

“The DA will decide if they can prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt,” said Steve Campora, a lawyer representing fire victims suing PG&E.

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