Lawsuit Contests CPUC Lawyer Hiring

by Jeff McDonald, UT-San Diego

PG&E's San Onofre nuclear plant

WPPilot / Wikimedia

A San Diego law firm is contesting the California Public Utilities Commission’s action to hire a criminal defense attorney, saying the right process was not followed.

As first reported by U-T San Diego, the commission hired the prestigious Sheppard Mullin law firm in November to respond to criminal investigations of its backchannel communications with utility company executives.

The lead attorney is being paid the discounted rate of $882 an hour to work for the commission, without specifying any client other than the public agency itself. The contract was issued at the staff level, not at a public commission meeting.

San Diego attorney Maria Severson on Monday sued the commission, asking a judge to force the agency to properly consider hiring the law in a public process. She also asked that specific individual clients be identified, as a public agency generally cannot be charged with a crime.

Severson said state law allows agencies to retain criminal defense lawyers only after a public discussion and vote, and only if the specific officials being defended are identified.

The 12-page complaint also asks a judge to force the commission to release documents sought under a pair of California Public Records Act requests that remain outstanding.

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