Pacific Gas and Electric Co. could face criminal charges because of a grand jury investigation in Butte County, a Bay Area lawyer said Tuesday, signaling that the bankrupt utility’s legal problems may still worsen in the place where last year’s Camp Fire started.
Dario de Ghetaldi, whose clients include victims of the Camp Fire, said during comments at PG&E’s latest bankruptcy court hearing in San Francisco that a Butte County grand jury is investigating potential criminal actions by the utility.
De Ghetaldi later told The Chronicle he could not elaborate on the details of the grand jury, when it was formed or why.
Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsey’s office said he could not confirm or deny the existence of a grand jury investigation due to the “secrecy laws that apply” to them.
The Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, killed 85 people and destroyed more than 18,800 structures in Butte County last year, essentially wiping out the town of Paradise.
PG&E has admitted its equipment likely started the blaze, which was the driving force behind the company’s decision to seek bankruptcy protection in January, citing liabilities from 2017 and 2018 fires that could top $30 billion.
PG&E also did not confirm or deny whether a grand jury was considering criminal charges against it after the Camp Fire.
In an emailed statement, spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said PG&E had been “open and transparent since the Camp Fire occurred and have been proactive in supplying information about our infrastructure” to state utility regulators, fire investigators “and the Butte County District Attorney.”
“PG&E’s most important responsibility must always be public and employee safety, and we are committed to complying with all rules and regulations that apply to our work, while working together with our state and community partners and across all sectors and disciplines to develop comprehensive, long-term safety solutions for the future,” she said in the email.
State investigators previously found PG&E equipment responsible for a series of wildfires that burned through Wine Country in 2017 — but not the Tubbs Fire that ravaged neighborhoods in and around Santa Rosa.
Prosecutors in the four counties most affected by the October 2017 wildfires announced in March that they would not bring criminal charges against PG&E because they couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the utility acted with reckless disregard for human lives.
San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Bob Egelko contributed to this report.