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CALIFORNIA / News and Insight on Business in the
Golden State

Edison Seeks to Limit PUC Police Powers

July 08, 1998|MICHAEL G. WAGNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Southern California Edison wants the Legislature to strip the Public Utilities Commission's investigators of their police powers for participating in last fall's massive criminal raid of the utility's corporate headquarters, according to two state officials.

The chairwoman of the Assembly's Utilities and Commerce Committee called the effort "audacious and outrageous" and an attempt to get even with a state regulatory agency for doing its job.

"This is like criminals saying they don't like how law enforcement treats them so we should take away their guns and badges," Assemblywoman Diane Martinez (D-Monterey Park) said Tuesday.

But an Edison official said the utility does not object to investigators having police powers. However, it wants to make sure the agency isn't given "broader police powers."

"We want to concede right off the top we're sensitive to the whole issue" that led to the raid, said Tommy Ross, an Edison vice president.

At issue is an otherwise innocuous piece of legislation introduced by Martinez that would update and clarify certain sections of state law.

The Public Utilities Commission is seeking to note that the name of the division for which investigators work has been changed from Safety and Enforcement to Consumer Services Division, according to Larry McNeely, an enforcement director for the commission.

But Gary Schoonyan, who heads Edison's San Francisco office, said the utility is concerned that the proposed amendment would also shift to the commission's executive director the authority to give any employee police powers. That might lead to an expansion of empowered investigators who lack the proper training and oversight, he said.

Edison executives, still angry over the raid in which 50 law enforcement officers served criminal search warrants on the utility's Rosemead headquarters, made no secret of the utility's intentions during a recent meeting with top commission enforcement officials.

"Edison came in here and told us this was in retaliation because we went along on that raid," McNeely said. "They told us point-blank: 'We want to make sure this never happens again.' "

McNeely said Schoonyan made it clear that "they want to repeal our powers altogether."

The raid occurred because Edison refused to cooperate with state arson investigators who had traced the cause of an October 1996 Calabasas fire to an Edison power pole. That blaze scorched 13,000 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains and hospitalized seven firefighters.

A Los Angeles County deputy district attorney declined in April to prosecute Edison, a division of Edison International, saying he didn't think he could prove that it had acted with criminal negligence. But he noted in his 12-page analysis of the case that Edison's equipment had caused the fire.

Consumer advocates are watching the bill closely.

"The PUC has to have that enforcement power, no question about it," said Lenny Goldberg, lobbyist for the Utility Reform Network. "If this is an effort to weaken that, this would be a real problem for consumers."

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