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PG&E delays homicide case, contests Zogg Fire charges

PG&E's lawyers told a judge in Shasta County that the company plans to file a challenge that would argue environmental crimes do not apply to them.

SHASTA COUNTY, Calif. — PG&E delays a homicide case and will challenge criminal charges in the deadly Zogg Fire that left at least four people, including a child, dead. 

PG&E used a legal maneuver Friday to delay court action on the 31 criminal charges filed against the company for starting the deadly Zogg Fire in September 2020. 

Instead of entering a plea, PG&E's lawyers told a judge in Shasta County that the company plans to file a "demurrer," a legal challenge that will argue some environmental crimes among the charges do not legally apply.

A Sonoma County judge rejected a similar demurrer in the criminal case pending.

PG&E FACES MANSLAUGHTER CHARGES AGAIN

Despite that the move effectively delays PG&E's plea until at least April, some family members of the four people killed in the Zogg Fire expressed gratitude to see PG&E appear in court at all.

 "We're pleased to see the case moving forward," said Suzie Bewley, the grandmother of one of the victims. "And anxious to see justice be done."

Bewley's granddaughter, 8-year-old Feyla McLeod, burned to death with her mother Alaina Rowe McLeod, as the pair tried to escape the flames in a pickup truck.

On the next road over, Karin King died next to her car in similar circumstances. Another man in the small community of Igo, Kenneth Vossen, died in the hospital after suffering severe burns over nearly all of his body. 

"They should not have had to go through that. No one should have to go through that," said Zach McLeod, the father of Feyla and husband of Alaina.

Among the Zogg Fire charges, Shasta County prosecutors accuse PG&E of four counts of felony involuntary manslaughter.  

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Just three months before the Zogg Fire, PG&E pleaded guilty 84 times to that same offense for killing people in the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and surrounding communities. 

Like the Camp Fire, a joint investigation by CAL FIRE and the Shasta County District Attorney's office found PG&E caused the Zogg Fire by criminal negligence, failing to address a known safety risk.

Instead of a metal hook, the Zogg case involves failure to remove a damaged pine tree leaning toward its power line that posed an "obvious" safety risk according to investigators. 

PG&E admits its power line sparked the Zogg Fire but unlike the Camp Fire, the company is expected to plead not guilty to the criminal charges this time. 

"We do not believe there was any criminal activity," PG&E said in a statement emailed from spokesperson James Noonan. "We continue to be saddened for the families and friends whose loved ones lost their lives in the Zogg Fire, as well as those who lost homes or businesses." 

PG&E LEADER POINTS TO BAILOUT LAW AS DEFENSE

PG&E CEO Patti Poppe has gone a step further, suggesting that PG&E could not be criminal because the company has received an official safety certificate under AB- 1054, a 2019 law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Private attorneys drafted the safety certificate law and were paid $3 million during that time under a contract to represent Newsom in PG&E's bankruptcy case, as first reported by ABC10 in its FIRE - POWER - MONEY investigation. 

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has approved two safety certificates for PG&E since the 2018 Camp Fire despite the fact that PG&E power lines have been named as the suspected cause of large, destructive fires every year since. 

Critics call PG&E's safety certificate, which protects the company from the cost of damages when it causes wildfires, a "license to burn." 

In less incendiary language, Poppe embraced the thrust of that argument in a recent interview. 

Bloomberg's Mark Chediak reports on the pending criminal investigation against PG&E for the massive 2021 Dixie Fire: 

(Poppe) said that the state has granted the utility a safety certificate for its wildfire mitigation plan and therefore it’s deemed a prudent operator.

"I have a hard time understanding how a prudent operator can also be a criminal," Poppe said. "I definitely know my co-workers are not."

In the same interview, Poppe sought to diminish the seriousness of the fact that her company was charged with crimes:

"Anyone can file criminal charges," Chief Executive Officer Patti Poppe said in an interview Tuesday. "It's sort of the easiest thing someone can do, is file criminal charges. That doesn't mean there is a basis for criminal charges."

"What's easy is getting the safety certificate, not filing criminal charges," said Mike Aguirre, a formal federal prosecutor who regularly challenges California utilities in court. "One requires probable cause that a crime was committed. The other one requires influence with the CPUC." 

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Aguirre is one of seven sources who spoke to ABC10 about Poppe's comments. Some of the sources were not authorized to speak publicly due to pending legal cases, but all have worked on civil or criminal investigations of PG&E. 

All of the sources rejected the notion that the safety certificate provides a valid legal defense to criminal charges, calling it "ridiculous" and "complete bullshit."

One source felt the statements were so "stupid" as to cast doubt on the accuracy of whether Poppe was accurately quoted. 

Neither PG&E nor Poppe disputed to ABC10 the accuracy of the quotes or the context in which Bloomberg reported them. 

The company did not respond to ABC10's questions asking whether the quotes amount to Poppe's own opinion or an actual legal theory that the company intends to advance in court. 

PRISON TIME IS NOT OFF THE TABLE 

The Zogg Fire charges are being pressed against the PG&E Corporation, not any of the company's officers or executives. 

PG&E's crimes in the Camp Fire were punishable by 90 years behind bars, but corporations cannot be sentenced to prison time

The company was sentenced to pay the maximum $3.5 million fine, an amount less than the revenue PG&E earned in the time it took to chauffeur its executives back to San Francisco from the Butte County courthouse. 

Shasta County prosecutors say their Zogg Fire investigation is still active and may lead to arrests of PG&E employees or contractors if the facts support charges. Most felony charges in California are subject to a three-year statute of limitations.  

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Under California law, power companies have a legal duty to cut or trim trees that threaten their power lines. 

The arborist report in CAL FIRE's investigation of the Zogg Fire found the 105-foot tall tree, in this case, has a large open cavity at its base due to previous fire damage. 

The problem was so obvious that the tree was actually marked for removal in 2018 according to the findings of U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who supervises PG&E's federal criminal probation for six felonies the company committed in the deadly 2010 San Bruno gas explosion. 

Despite the fact that the tree was marked for removal, Alsup also found PG&E and its contractors never followed up to cut the tree down. 

PG&E's lawyers said that the company's database of tree threats did not "talk to" a separate similar database maintained by PG&E's third-party contractor. 

"Someone designed the system that allowed that to happen," said Catherine Sandoval, a former state power regulator who teaches utility law at Santa Clara University. 

To contact the team with tips, email Investigative Reporter Brandon Rittiman at brittiman@abc10.com

WATCH MORE: More than a bailout | Fire – Power - Money

 

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