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PG&E to pay $390,000 for snooping on SmartMeter critics

Published: Friday, April 5, 2013 at 11:26 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 at 11:26 a.m.

State power authorities approved a settlement in which PG&E will pay $390,000 for the company’s role in a 2010 corporate spying scandal that targeted opponents of SmartMeters, including those living in Sebastopol.

In November 2010, PG&E executive William Devereaux used a fake identity to access Internet-based forums hosted by meter opponents. Devereaux, who oversaw the $2.2 billion program, resigned from the company two days after the ruse was exposed.

Sandi Maurer, a Sebastopol resident who uncovered the hoax, said Friday that she “appreciated” the state taking action. But she said it falls short of what she and other activists were seeking.

“We missed an opportunity to bring more of the story out, but they were fined,” said Maurer, founder of the EMF Safety Network.

The case was the first test of an employee’s social media use and whether it violated state public utility laws, which state that charges or services offered by power companies “shall be just and reasonable.”

The settlement agreed to by PG&E, the California Public Utilities Commission and The Utility Reform Network, a consumer group, avoided answering that question.

PG&E acknowledged that Devereaux’s “conduct was misleading” and violated the company’s internal codes of conduct. But the company maintains that the former executive’s behavior did not violate any state laws.

The company insisted that Devereaux acted alone, despite evidence that other PG&E employees accessed activist forums. Devereaux also described SmartMeter opponents as “insurgents” in emails that he authored.

CPUC staff characterized Devereaux’s actions as indicative of a “culture at PG&E that transcends zealousness and borders on outright hostility to those parties that represent views that PG&E does not agree with.”

But Administrative Law Judge Jean Vieth, who agreed to the settlement, wrote that none of the parties had shown that any other employees other than Devereaux used an alias to access activist websites.

Simply accessing these sites did not necessarily violate any rules or laws because “access to public sites is an activity that any member of the public may pursue,” Vieth wrote.

The site for the EMF Safety Network was different in that Maurer controlled who she let in. Devereaux, using the alias “Ralph,” sent an email to Maurer asking to join the forum so that he could help with group activities.

But Maurer knew it was a hoax because Devereaux’s name was listed alongside his e-mail address.

Activists contend that Devereaux used the information he gleaned surreptitiously online to thwart their activities, including an October 2010 protest at PG&E’s Rohnert Park installation yard.

The company, however, argued that the information was available publicly.

Vieth did not order PG&E to publicly apologize for Devereaux’s actions, as Maurer had sought. However, the judge called the company’s stance “disappointing” in her ruling.

Brittany McKannay, a company spokeswoman, on Friday appeared to acquiesce to Maurer’s demand.

“We do not tolerate or condone this kind of activity. We sincerely apologize to all of those who are affected by this situation,” she said.

Activists had asked the CPUC to impose a fine on PG&E of up to $9.42 million based on the number of messages that Devereaux authored or viewed.

Vieth wrote she could not do that because the parties that agreed to settle did not reach a consensus on whether state law was violated in the case, which she said has no clear precedent.

The $390,000 settlement payment will be deposited in the state’s general fund. PG&E also has to revise and update employee manuals and fund regulatory trainings with regard to social media use.

Activists have filed a separate lawsuit in San Francisco County Superior Court that seeks civil damages from PG&E for fraud and deceit, invasion of privacy and defamation.

PG&E and Sebastopol officials, in the meantime, are in an uneasy standoff over the installation of SmartMeters in the city.

The City Council passed a moratorium Feb. 21 on such installations but amid escalating tensions — including a resident contacting authorities to report that an employee was installing one of the devices — agreed to let the company continue to do so for business customers while the CPUC conducts hearings on opt-out programs.

(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.)

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