Guardian muckraker leaves San Francisco with a helluva story
Peter L. "Pete" Petrakis, the Guardian investigative reporter who developed the stories in the mid 1970s that became known to Guardian readers as the PG&E/Raker Act scandal, died Feb. 28 in Everett, Wash.
In story after story, Pete laid out the scandal that the local media had buried for generations: how Pacific Gas and Electric Co. had in effect stolen San Francisco's electrical power supply from the Hetch Hetchy dam in violation of the public power mandate of the federal Raker Act of 1913.
The act allowed the city an unprecedented concession, to build a dam in a national park (Yosemite) on the condition that the city have a public water and public power system. Pete detailed how PG&E used its corporate and political muscle to keep the cheap, green, hydropower from city residents and businesses and instead forced them to buy PG&E's expensive private power, at a cost of billions of dollars through the years.
Pete learned of the scandal in the mid-1960s as a student of J. B. Neilands, a biochemistry professor and citizen activist at UC Berkeley.
Neilands had in the late 1950s started the campaign in his living room in the Berkeley Hills that ended up stopping PG&E from building a nuclear power plant upwind of San Francisco at Bodega Bay.
In the process of researching the Bodega Bay story, Neilands came upon an even bigger scandal: the PG&E/Raker Act scandal. After winning at Bodega Bay, Neilands did the research into the scandal and then brought it to me shortly after the Guardian began publication in 1966.
This was a huge story and I remember saying, "Joe, why are you bringing a big story like this to me?" He replied, "Nobody else will print it because of PG&E. You're my only hope. If you don't print the story, nobody will."
But the story needed much more research and development on several levels.
A few weeks after Neilands' story appeared, Pete came to me at the Guardian with the big new angle. He had figured out that the city's charter revision committee was about to quietly gut the provision in the 1932 charter that updated the Raker Act and mandated the city to "gradually acquire" and "ultimately own" its own power system. Pete swung into action with a three-page story on Sept. 30, 1969 that detailed the capitulation to PG&E under the headline: "The Charter Board — afraid to enforce the Raker Act and bring cheap public power to San Francisco."
He added a timeline: "How to Hetch Hetchy the City Charter." And he explained that "to Hetch Hetchy" meant to "confuse and confound the public by adroit acts and deceptive words in order to turn to private corporate profit a trust set up for the people"
In short, Pete dug into the scandal with gusto and research skill and wicked wit. He produced several major stories over a five-year period with shocking new information on how PG&E was systematically screwing the city by stealing its Hetch Hetchy power. Each year, we would turn Pete's stories over to the civil grand jury, with his documentation, and formally ask the grand jury to investigate the Hetch Hetchy scandal and make a report and recommendation.
Finally, in 1974, the grand jury, to our great surprise, came out with a report that corroborated Pete's reporting. As our editorial put it in our Jan. 17, 1974 edition: "In short, the grand jury has corroborated almost everything the Guardian has been saying about the Hetch Hetchy scandal for the past five years."
At Pete's request, a Celebration of Life service was held privately at the family home on March 13. Pete requested that memorial contributions be made to the American Red Cross. Condolences can be sent to Julia Petrakis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So long, Pete, you left the Guardian and San Francisco with one helluva story.