PG&E’s blank check

PG&E’s blank check

Who is the utility buying off? Start with Newsom, Feinstein, and Willie Brown

By Amanda Witherell


Illustration by Danny Hellman

It’s Saturday morning, Aug. 23, and at the plumber’s union hall on Market Street, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. employees are leading a rally in opposition to San Francisco’s Clean Energy Act. A table at the back of the room sags with urns of coffee and uneaten pastries. To the side are towers of glossy black “Stop the Blank Check” window signs. E-mails sent by event organizers said Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Mayor Gavin Newsom were expected to attend, but so far, there’s no sign of either.

“On behalf of the men and women at PG&E, thanks for giving up your Saturday,” PG&E vice president John Simon tells participants, who will be spending the afternoon walking San Francisco’s streets passing out No on Proposition H propaganda.

But the audience isn’t listening.

Most of the people packed into the room are Asian kids, giggling and chatting and ignoring the English-only presentation. One group of boys playfully pushes each other, accidentally bumping into some stage lighting and earning a reprimand from a rally organizer. The kids ignore him. I ask some of the young people if they’re with a school or club, or if they’re part of JROTC, which has an informational booth in the vestibule. They look at me blankly and turn away, muttering in Cantonese. I question a few others and get similar responses.

Outside, I find a young man who speaks English. He tells me the kids aren’t really here for the rally. “It’s just a job,” he says. They’re getting $15 an hour to hang flyers on doorknobs — flyers that read “hand-delivered by a Stop the Blank Check Supporter.”

The Committee to Stop the Blank Check is the official campaign committee fighting the Clean Energy Act, which will appear as Prop. H on the November ballot. The group, however, is funded by a blank check from PG&E.

“They’ve pledged enough to educate every voter in San Francisco,” the committee’s campaign manager, Eric Jaye, told the Guardian at the Saturday rally.

It’s no surprise that the campaign workers are paid for by PG&E — in fact, just about everyone who has come out against Prop. H seems to be getting money from the utility.

The Clean Energy Act sets ambitious goals for moving the city into renewable energy — goals that go far beyond current state mandates. It also calls for a study into San Francisco’s energy options and authorizes the city to issue revenue bonds to buy or build energy facilities.

An investigation into the elected officials, committees, and groups that oppose Prop. H shows cash from PG&E in nearly every coffer.

The official ballot argument against the Clean Energy Act is signed by Feinstein, Newsom, and three supervisors initially appointed to the board by the mayor: Michela Alioto-Pier, Carmen Chu, and Sean Elsbernd.

Feinstein’s loaded with PG&E money. Since 2004, Feinstein has received $15,000 in direct contributions from PG&E, according to OpenSecrets.org. More significant, perhaps, is that Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, serves as chairman of the board of CBRE, a real estate firm that did $4.8 million in business with PG&E in 2007, according to an annual report the utility files with the state of California.

Campaign finance disclosure statements from Feinstein state that her husband receives fees and income from CBRE, and has $250,000 and $500,000 in investment holdings.

Feinstein’s spokesperson, Scott Gerber, said there was no conflict of interest. But Citizens for Responsibility in Ethics spokesperson Naomi Seligman added, “The ethics rules are so incredibly narrow that unless Senator Feinstein was pushing or voting for something that would impact only Mr. Blum, it doesn’t count as a conflict.”

Still: Feinstein’s getting cash directly from PG&E, and then doing the company’s political bidding.

NEWSOM’S PG&E PARTY

Newsom, who has won campaigns with PG&E’s financial support in the past, is hosting a party called “Unconventional ’08” in Denver this week. Guess who’s one of the three listed sponsors? PG&E. (The other two are AT&T and the carpenter’s union.) And, of course, the person running Newsom’s campaign for governor is PG&E’s main man, Eric Jaye.

Sups. Alioto-Pier and Elsbernd? Both had PG&E money shunted through independent expenditure committees. Sup. Chu is currently running to keep her seat in District 4.

Former Mayor Willie Brown tops the list of endorsers on Committee to Stop the Blank Check’s Web site. PG&E paid Brown $200,000 in consulting fees during 2007.

Neither Brown nor PG&E returned calls for comment and clarification on what exactly Brown’s consulting involves, or how much he’s getting this year.

Of the 30 paid ballot arguments that will be listed in November’s Voter Information Pamphlet, PG&E bought 22 of them — many for well-funded organizations like the Bay Area Council, Golden Gate Restaurant Association, and the Republican Party that could presumably pay for their own $2-per-word screeds against the measure.

The arguments all make the same points and parrot the same PG&E lines.

Jaye said that ballot arguments were routinely paid for by other entities, and of the groups that have healthy bank accounts, he said, “We’d rather those groups invest their money in capacity building for November.”

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, the Building Owners and Managers Association, and Plan C all paid for their own ballot arguments. In 2007 the Chamber received more than $350,000 from PG&E in the form of dues and grants. BOMA got a $26,500 grant from the utility company, which also hired the outfit for almost $100,000 worth of consulting work. Plan C’s Political Action Committee regularly receives deposits from PG&E during election season.

Other entities that signed arguments paid for by PG&E include: the San Francisco police and firefighter unions, which are constantly asking the city for more money (and now oppose a potential revenue source); the Asian Pacific Democratic Club; the Small Business Network; the Rev. Amos Brown, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Paying for their own No on H arguments: former San Francisco Public Defender and California Public Utilities Commission member Jeff Brown, the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, BART board member James Fang, and prominent small businessowner Harold Hoogasian.

PG&E spends millions each year on consultants — and at campaign time, that money turns into political support.

“PG&E’s philanthropy has been paying off into manipulating a network of supporters who believe [Prop. H] is going to do something adverse to their interest when in reality it’s not,” said Sup. Ross Mirkarimi.

Money isn’t everything for some organizations. Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights received a $10,000 grant from PG&E in 2007. Cofounder Van Jones has endorsed the Clean Energy Act.

There’s no paper trail for how much PG&E has spent to date on this campaign and the utility will be free to spend money without scrutiny until Oct. 6, when the first financial statements related to the November election are due at the Ethics Commission.

THE OTHER SIDE

But PG&E can’t buy everyone — and the coalition supporting the Clean Energy Act is large, broad, and growing.

Prop. H has been endorsed by eight of the city’s 11 supervisors, Assemblymembers Fiona Ma and Mark Leno, and environmentalist and author Bill McKibben. Groups with a variety of different interests, like the League of Conservation Voters, the SF Democratic Party, SEIU 1021, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, and the Senior Action Network also have given it a green light.

“I think the coalition for it is a much broader coalition than has been for it in the past,” said Susan Leal, former head of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, who supports Prop. H. “Because of that, PG&E has ramped up the campaign and put a lot more money into it than in the past.”

Mirkarimi, who authored the measure, called the early phone banking, mailers, and door knocking a “signature blitzkrieg campaign,” similar to what he witnessed as the manager of the 2001 public power measure that also raised PG&E’s ire — and which lost by about 500 votes. “That’s why PG&E is working so hard now. We were so close in 2001.”

John Rizzo of the Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club said his group has already committed money and people to walk districts. But he noted that he has already seen Committee to Stop the Blank Check signs posted in windows on the west side of the city. “We expected it,” he said of the resources PG&E has spent to date. “The only thing they have is money.”

Rizzo said the Sierra Club has endorsed past public power measures and considers this an environmental issue. “We are finding it’s a pretty broad coalition of folks who might not be together on an environmental issue. The San Francisco Women’s Political Committee PAC just recommended endorsing it to their membership, and that’s not normally an environmental group — though they are a good group.”

Leal says the Clean Energy Act really transcends arguments against public power. “I’m mystified why people would not be on board for something that’s cleaner and cheaper,” said Leal. “I think I know why a number of others have gotten on board. They recognize that this is the path to clean energy for power.”

Jaye wouldn’t assign a specific dollar amount to how much the company is willing to spend to defeat the measure — but he made it clear that there are no limits: “It could take $1 million, it could take $5 million.” In 2006, when public power was on the ballot in Yolo County, PG&E spent almost $10 million keeping the 77,000 customers they would have lost to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. The measure lost by one percentage point.

Jaye, who also manages Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign, is quick to point out that the committee has already received 12,000 signed cards of support. Still, he said, they weren’t asking for money from these potential campaign donors “because we have significant and sufficient resources pledged from PG&E.”

Originally published August 27, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

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