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By Michael Liedtke
The families of some of the 85 people killed by a horrific Northern California wildfire ignited by Pacific Gas & Electric's long-neglected equipment vilified the company Wednesday as greedy, corrupt and reckless, telling heartbreaking stories of their loss in court.
The speakers tearfully told of holiday and birthday celebrations that will never be celebrated after their loved ones perished in the November 2018 fire that nearly wiped out Paradise, California. PG&E pleaded guilty Tuesday to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully starting the fire in the bucolic town about 170 miles (275 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco.
As they addressed Butte County Superior Court Judge Michael Deems, the families lamented never being able to see a music-loving father joyfully dance to his favorite Rolling Stones song, going to lunch with a younger sister at a local diner or savoring the simple pleasure of being able to sit down to watch “The Golden Girls” on television.
“You had the capacity to know what you were doing would kill people,” said Philip Binstock, referring to PG&E executives. His 88-year-old father, Julian Binstock, was found with his dog in the shower of his Paradise home.
Binstock noted that PG&E was previously found to have falsified safety and maintenance records for its natural gas lines to make more money before the 2018 wildfire. “Not only are you mass murderers, you are also thieves, liars and forgers,” he said.
Wednesday marked the second day of an extraordinary court proceeding that will culminate in PG&E being sentenced by Deems on Thursday. A report based on the grand jury indictment described repeated warnings the company had about its nearly century-old failing electrical equipment, but its executives continually chose to save money to boost profits instead.
One family member who spoke ripped PG&E for not even bothering to spend about $13 to replace one aging part that played an instrumental role in starting the Camp Fire.
Other family members described the anguish of spending months awaiting for authorities to identify bodies that were so badly burned that DNA testing was ineffective.
“I leave this courtroom, your honor, as a victim because I have been scarred for life,” said Tom LeBlanc, whose 53-year-old stepdaughter, Kimber Wehr, was found in her Paradise home. She was unable to drive because of a neurological disability, and was unable to flee the fire on her own. “If they feel a just little bit of pain today from my story, then mission accomplished.”
As a corporation, PG&E can't go to jail for its crimes. Instead, it will pay a maximum fine of $4 million, including $500,000 to cover the costs of Butte County's investigation. The company also will pay $13.5 billion to compensate survivors of the Camp Fire and other fires blamed on the utility in 2017 and 2018. It's part of $25.5 billion in settlements reached in its bankruptcy case, which is expected to be wrapped up within the next two weeks.
“This culture of apathy, neglect and greed has become synonymous with PG&E,” said Skye Sedwick. Her 82-year-old father, John Sedwick, planned to retire in December 2018 but was trapped on the front porch of his home in Magalia, California. He regularly went to a nearby senior center to play music for his friends, she said.
“I can assure you, to many of the seniors, the music died with my father,” Skye Sedwick said.
In a show of contrition, PG&E CEO Bill Johnson appeared in court to enter guilty pleas to each count Tuesday while looking at photos of each wildfire victim.
“I wish there were some way to take back what happened or take away the pain of those who've suffered. But I know there's not,” said Johnson, who was not CEO at the time of the 2018 fire and will step down June 30.
Johnson didn't come to Wednesday's hearing, but a PG&E board member, Bill Smith, who will replace him on an interim basis sat stoically in the courtroom as some of the dead's surviving family appeared in person while others were called on the phone. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey also read more than a dozen letters and emails sent by the surviving family members.
Smith said in a statement the family's stories “affected me very deeply and personally.” He echoed previous company promises to do a better job protecting customers in the future.
Many of the family members expressed their shock and dismay that PG&E will only have to pay a $4 million fine after generating $17 billion in revenue last year., even while the company worked out its financial problems in bankruptcy.
“This what is wrong with the justice system,” said Tammie Konicki, who spoke on the phone from Ohio about the death of her 64-year old mother, Sheila Santos, in the Camp Fire. “They aren't paying for anything. They are all walking away with no jail time. The rest of us are suffering .... The company gets to live, they get to keep going.”
Richard Salazar, who lost both his parents, Fredrick and Phyllis, said he doesn't go a day without thinking about the two people who adopted him when he was 11 and helped him get his life in order.
“They didn't need to go this way. It should not have happened,” Salazar said. “I hope you guys at (PG&E) can do better. I don't know what else to say.”