It’s one thing for the defenders of former Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey to stand by him. Before scandal erupted over his back-channel chats with execs of the utilities he was supposed to be regulating, he had led California out of an energy crisis and was known as the greenest commissioner in the history of the CPUC.
But throwing him a $250-a-plate tribute Thursday night at a posh ballroom in San Francisco? With Willie Brown as emcee and sponsors from Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration?
Peevey may indeed have performed “a lifetime of service,” as it said on the invitations, but he also was at the helm when a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pipeline blew up in 2010, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes in San Bruno.
Post-mortems found that the commission’s failure to focus on safety was partly to blame for the disaster. And emails leaked since show that Peevey had, at best, a casual regard for the formalities of regulation.
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Correspondence indicates that he wined and dined PG&E execs, hit them up for $1 million contributions to environmental causes, gave them free advice and yelled at them about the bump in his bill after his Sea Ranch vacation home got a smart meter.
None of this is acceptable, and some of it may be illegal. The relationship is being probed by state and federal law enforcement authorities, who searched his homes the other day.
So even if pickets hadn’t been expected – and they were – at the benefit dinner in the Julia Morgan Ballroom at the Merchant Exchange Building, the optics alone should have put the kibosh on such a monument to bad public relations. “Disgraced PUC boss to be honored by cronies,” read one Silicon Valley headline, pretty much saying it all.
Peevey may be under fire, but feting him wasn’t the answer. He’s no martyr, and sending him out in a blaze of pretend glory has just added insult to the injuries that still pain San Bruno.
It’s too bad that our modern political culture seems able only to toggle between hero worship and mob rule. In a more nuanced world, Peevey’s friends wouldn’t have felt compelled to super-size his kudos because his enemies couldn’t have artificially inflated his transgressions. His record would have spoken for itself, and public officials would be focusing on making utilities more accountable and safer.
Instead, his friends have had an emotional reaction and gussied it up as a benefit for the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. The cover-up is always worse than the crime, even when it tastes like rubber chicken.
The veteran politicians involved should have known better. Thursday night’s fiasco has just made everyone look bad. Maybe future students of public policy will glean a teachable moment from it.