by Dave Waddell
Just one month before the horrendous 2018 Camp Fire, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey freelanced a money deal with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. that allowed PG&E to escape a criminal charge for its negligence in starting the 2017 Honey Fire that threatened Paradise.
PG&E’s extreme desire to avoid a criminal charge in Butte County – and Ramsey’s willingness to play along – was motivated by the company’s desire to avoid violating terms of its federal probation for the 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people.
“We very much appreciate the cooperation of PG&E in stepping forward once again and making fire safety a top priority,” Ramsey quoted himself as saying in a news release his office issued about the Honey Fire deal on Oct. 5, 2018.
Just 33 days later, on Nov. 8, the PG&E-caused Camp Fire roared through Paradise, Magalia and Concow, burning more than 153,000 acres, destroying more than 18,800 structures and killing at least 84 people. It was the deadliest and most destructive fire in the history of California. Total damages have been estimated at $16.5 billion, with one-quarter of that amount uninsured.
In June, PG&E pleaded guilty in Butte County Superior Court to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter because its transmission lines were responsible for causing the Camp Fire. The company agreed to pay a $3.5 million fine as part of that criminal plea. PG&E had previously paid $255 million to Butte County government in Camp Fire damages.
Ramsey’s rationale for making the Honey Fire deal was that the county Fire Department would get $1.5 million from PG&E, while a misdemeanor criminal fine for the utility would have maxed out at $1,000. The agreement says it “does not constitute any admission of wrongdoing on the part of PG&E.” The money was contractually obligated to pay for wages and equipment for four county power line inspectors for four years. The agreement was signed by only Ramsey and a lawyer for PG&E, which holds assets that have been valued at $15 billion and clearly preferred a $1.5 million hit over going to criminal court in Butte County.
“Our settlement was in lieu of a criminal filing,” Ramsey told San Francisco-based public radio station KQED in December 2018. “We felt that this was a much better outcome for the citizens of Butte County.”
While receiving little if any attention locally, the implications of Ramsey letting PG&E off criminally were covered by news media in the Bay Area. KQED’s “California Report” program devoted nearly four minutes to the story, headlined “PG&E May Have Dodged Probation Violation by Striking Deal With Butte County.” Ramsey told KQED that PG&E was obviously motivated to avoid a violation of probation terms imposed for breaking federal pipeline safety laws in the San Bruno blast. In addition to killing eight, the explosion, caused by a ruptured 30-inch natural gas pipeline, injured 58 and destroyed dozens of homes.
In 2016, a federal jury in San Francisco found PG&E guilty of five safety violations. As part of the terms of its five-year probation period imposed by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson in January 2017, PG&E was ordered to not “commit another federal, state, or local crime.”
While Ramsey saw holding PG&E criminally faultless for the Honey Fire as a good deal for Butte County, a lawyer involved in the explosion case indicated it may not have been so for the people of San Bruno.
Britt Strottman told the San Jose Mercury News that she was both surprised and not surprised that PG&E did not disclose to its probation officer that it was under criminal investigation in Butte County.
“It seems irresponsible for PG&E to not report any possible violation of probation,” Strottman was quoted as saying about the company’s Honey Fire involvement. “You’d think they’d be under high alert … It would be the first thing a responsible corporation would do.”
She argued that the judge should reopen the utility’s punishment for the San Bruno explosion.
“They probably should be re-sentenced,” said Strottman, a former San Mateo prosecutor who represented the city of San Bruno after the blast. “That might be the only way they learn their lesson. A slap on the wrist will not change the culture of PG&E.”
One persistent critic of Ramsey’s PG&E Honey Fire deal is David Edward Martin, a former Butte County sheriff’s deputy who Ramsey tried unsuccessfully to prosecute for gun violations. For years, Martin has penned long epistles to various officials and agencies, making detailed accusations about some of the players in the criminal justice system in Butte County. Included are allegations describing racist acts by Sheriff’s Office personnel in years past.
Ramsey did not respond to ChicoSol’s request for comment on both his Honey Fire deal and Martin’s various claims.
Martin has accused Ramsey of vindictiveness because Martin says he reported an allegation of child abuse against Ramsey in the 1990s. According to Martin’s writings, he was dispatched to a shooting at the Ramsey residence in Oroville. Ramsey’s teenage daughter told deputies she had fired the gun because Ramsey was man-handling her two younger sisters and she feared for their well-being, according to Martin.
Ramsey alleged in 2018 that 23 of Martin’s more than 100 guns were illegal assault weapons under California law. Martin says they were all legal and that much of his extensive gun collection had been inherited from his father. Martin alleges Ramsey withheld exculpatory evidence so that Martin would be locked up in jail for several months for crimes he did not commit.
Ramsey’s case against Martin was quickly tossed by Butte County Superior Court Judge Michael Deems. Deems ruled that not only had a search warrant of Martin’s property been issued without probable cause, but that the state warrant had been served improperly by federal agents during a stakeout by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Judge Deems also said there was documentation Martin had legally purchased parts of World War II-era firearms, but no evidence provided to support Ramsey’s claim that Martin was manufacturing machine guns.
To Martin, Ramsey’s Honey Fire deal was a matter of a corporation buying its way out of the consequences of its own criminal negligence. Martin, who says he has a law degree, also wrote that Ramsey should stick to his job – prosecuting criminal violations – and not negotiate civil settlements on behalf of Butte County, which is what County Counsel Bruce Alpert is paid to do.
Seven months after the Honey Fire, in May 2018, Ramsey received a report from fire investigators blaming PG&E for the fire. The report found that an untrimmed tree branch in heavy winds had fallen into the company’s power transmission lines, sparking the blaze. No lives or structures were lost in the Honey Fire, which was contained to 150 acres of Butte Creek Canyon grasslands.
Martin criticizes Ramsey for sitting on a fire-related criminal charge against PG&E through the height of Butte County’s 2018 fire season and then settling just for money as the misdemeanor statute of limitations was about to expire — allowing PG&E to try to cover up a likely violation of its federal probation.
Dave Waddell is a contributor to ChicoSol, covering criminal justice issues.