Judge postpones sentencing of PG&E in case tied to blast

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A federal judge says he is inclined to require Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to mention its convictions in ads and have employees do thousands of hours of community service as part of its sentence in a criminal case stemming from a deadly natural gas explosion in the San Francisco Bay Area.

U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson made the comment Monday as he pushed back his final sentencing decision, saying he needed more time to consider comments by attorneys for the government and PG&E.

Henderson's move followed a lengthy hearing that included emotional testimony from three victims of the 2010 explosion of a PG&E natural gas pipeline that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in the city of San Bruno.

"The loss of my loved ones, my personal belongings, my neighborhood, my life happened due to the negligence of a greedy company that put profits ahead of safety," said Sue Bullis, 56, who lost her husband, son and mother-in-law in the explosion.

She was hopeful the sentence would lead to changes at PG&E.

Henderson postponed his final decision on sentencing until Thursday.

The sentence will close one of the final chapters in the legal and regulatory fallout from the San Bruno blast.

California regulators have previously fined PG&E $1.6 billion for the explosion, and the company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars settling lawsuits by victims.

Julie Kane, a PG&E executive, apologized Monday in court to the victims and said the company was committed to safety.

"We are profoundly sorry," she said.

PG&E is prepared to pay the maximum $3 million fine it faces and has agreed to a monitor to oversee it as part of any sentence, said Steven Bauer, an attorney for the company.

However, he asked Henderson to set a time limit on the requirement involving ads and link the messages to improved safety.

Prosecutor Hartley West said she wanted to make sure PG&E isn't able to get out of the advertising requirement through a carefully worded ad that avoids using the term "safety."

Prosecutors have also asked Henderson to restructure PG&E's bonus program for employees — a sentencing requirement PG&E opposes.

Jurors convicted the company in August of five of 11 counts of pipeline safety violations, including failing to gather information to evaluate potential gas-line threats and deliberately not classifying a gas line as high risk. Prosecutors said the company deliberately misclassified pipelines so it wouldn't have to subject them to appropriate testing, choosing a cheaper method to save money.

Jurors also convicted the utility of obstructing investigators after the blast.

PG&E attorneys said during trial that the company's engineers did not think the pipelines posed a safety risk, and the company did not intend to mislead investigators.

The stakes in the case dropped dramatically, however, when prosecutors made the surprising decision several days into jury deliberations not to pursue a potential $562 million fine if PG&E was found guilty of any of the pipeline safety counts. No PG&E employees were charged, so no one is facing prison time.

Henderson said Monday that requiring PG&E to mention its pipeline convictions in any publicity about its commitment to safety seems an "appropriate punishment and deterrent." He said he was inclined to require 10,000 hours of community service, with 2,000 of those performed by high-level PG&E personnel.

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