Mayor Lee and PG&E

He calls the megalith "a great corporation that gets it" -- yikes

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EDITORIAL Pacific Gas and Electric Company is the number one corporate criminal in San Francisco. The company's malfeasance caused the deaths of eight people and destroyed an entire neighborhood in San Bruno last year. The National Transportation Safety Board, in a report issued August 30, denounced PG&E's "integrity management program without integrity" and blasted the company's efforts to "exploit weakness in a lax system of oversight."

That doesn't even address the fact that PG&E has been operating an illegal monopoly in San Francisco for more than 80 years, engaging in an ongoing criminal conspiracy to violate the federal Raker Act. Or the fact that the utility spent $50 million of ratepayer money on a ballot initiative aimed at eliminating consumer choice in the electricity market.

So why was Mayor Ed Lee out at a PG&E public relations event Sept. 1 praising the "great local corporation" as a "great company that gets it?"

Well, the mayor's campaign press spokesperson, Tony Winnicker, says that PG&E was at the event to donate $250,000 to a program for at-risk youth, and that the mayor was only recognizing that, for all its flaws, the utility "also [does] something good for our public schools and low-income kids."

That's not enough, and that's not acceptable — and the mayor should apologize to the residents of San Francisco, San Bruno and everyplace else in California where the giant corporation has done serious and lasting damage.

It's nice that PG&E gave a contribution to a program that helps Soma kids learn to read and to play baseball. We support the RBI program and its goals. Never mind that the $250,000 is about 0.005 percent of the money that the utility spent trying to block public power in California. Never mind that PG&E pays such a low franchise fee that it robs of city of millions of annual tax dollars that could fund programs like this one. It still sounds like a large sum, and to the nonprofit program at Bessie Charmichael School, it is.

But there's a reason PG&E gives money to community groups and programs like this all over town — it's a way to buy support and respect. Corporate largess of this sort is a relatively cheap public relations strategy — and for the mayor not to see that is embarrassing.

It's a particularly notable conflict of interest, too — Lee's top patron and biggest political supporter, Willie Brown (who knows a bit about corruption himself) has been on PG&E's payroll as a private attorney for the past several years, earning about $200,000 a year.

Most of the candidates for mayor have been taking a gentle approach to Lee, and that makes a certain amount of sense — in a ranked-choice voting environment, negative campaigning often backfires. But there's nothing inappropriate about saying that the mayor of San Francisco has damaged his own reputation and the reputation of the city by allowing himself to be used at a PR tool by PG&E. Remember: He didn't just show up and thank the utility for the money. He called PG&E a "great local corporation," which is, quite simply, false. This ought to become an issue in the race, and Lee should be forced to explain his position on public power, his ties to Brown and PG&E and his willingness to put aside years of malfeasance in the name of a small contribution.

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