Remembering Peter L. Petrakis, the pioneering Guardian investigative reporter who exposed the biggest urban scandal in U.S. history
Peter L. “Pete” Petrakis was 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.
Pete died Feb. 28 in Everett, Washington.
In story after story, Pete laid out the scandal that the local media had buried for generations: how PG&E had in effect stolen San Francisco’s electrical power supply from the Hetch Hetchy dam in violation of the public power mandates 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 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, hydro power from city residents and businesses and instead forced them to buy PG&E’s expensive private power, at a cost through the years of billions of dollars.
Pete learned of the scandal in the mid-1960s as a student of Prof. J. B. Neilands, a biochemistry professor and citizen activist at the University of California-Berkeley.
Joe 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.
This was a truly historic victory of citizens fighting the local private utility, as recent events have demonstrated with the nuclear disaster in Japan.
In the process of researching the Bodega Bay story, Joe came upon an even bigger scandal: the PG&E/Raker Act scandal. After winning at Bodega Bay, Joe 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.”
I was happy to publish Joe’s story and it appeared in our March 27, 1969 edition, pretty much as Joe wrote it. The story was solid, and created ripples, but it was only a start because PG&E had successfully managed to bury the scandal over the years, and had used its political muscle to keep San Francisco’s City Hall as a virtual PG&E subsidiary. The story needed much more research and development on several levels.
A few weeks after Joe's 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 gut quietly 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" This was a quote used by U.S. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes in a speech to the Commonwealth Club in 1941 in support of a bond issue to buy out PG&E. PG&E Hetch Hetchyed the bond campaign to death and it lost.
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...
What the grand jury did was to independently review the history of the Raker Act and the performance of the city in fulfilling its conditions. The jury retraced our steps, read documentation we have read and some we haven't, never once quoted us or cited us and still came to the same conclusion--that San Francisco is forbidden to transfer Hetch Hetchy power to private utilities.but is nonetheless doing so, and that PG&E must be replaced in San Francisco by a municipal power and light department."
As it had for years, City Hall and the local media promptly buried the story. And PG&E quietly put its surrogates into succeeding grand juries to bury the report and see that it would never again see the light of day.
As Pete noted wryly, "Are San Franciscans too dumb to run their own electricity system? As the grand jury pointed out in the relevant point of comparison, our water bills are lower today than they were 40 years ago before the city acquired the Spring Valley Water Company. How high are our utility bills after seven PG&E rate increases just this last year?"
Pete was an editor's dream, using his science training to be thorough, accurate, fair, and on point. Not once did a story "bounce" and never did anyone catch him in a factual mistake. He put legs and muscle on the the PG&E/Raker Act story that helped inspire three public power campaigns and a strong public power movement in the city with a passion to enforce the Raker Act, kick PG&E out of City Hall, and bring our own Hetch Hetchy power to our citizens and businesses in San Francisco.
Pete was born on July 9, 1928, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the second son of first generation Greek immigrants. Pete served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War at the military hospital in Rantoul, Illinois. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology from the University of South Dakota, a Master of Science in Biochemistry from the University of Oklahoma, a PHD in Biochemistry from the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, and an MPH from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. He taught biochemistry at San Francisco State University.
Pete married Lorraine (Mardie) Tecklenberg in 1953. They moved to San Francisco in l959 where they raised two daughters.
Pete left the Guardian in the mid-1970s and went to Washington, D.C. to use his new journalistic skills to start a new career as a technical writer and editor.
He worked first as the editor of AMINCO (American Instrument Company) News and later as a writer-editor for many U.S. government agencies. He was an award-winning science writer for the National Institutes of Health. Pete met and married his second wife, Julia, in 1982, and the couple lived in Annapolis, Maryland, before relocating to Camano, Island, Washington where they lived for 20 years. Using online technology, Pete continued the editorial work of his one-man company, Life Sciences Editorial Services. Earlier, Pete had purchased one of the first home computers a VectoGraphic, taught himself programming and in the 1990s wrote and distributed commercially a DOS software program, TimeSet.
Pete was something of a renaissance man. His formal education was in the sciences, but he was an enthusiastic self-learner and student of American culture, politics, and history. Most recently, he was researching climate change. He enjoyed taking his family traveling and camping throughout the U.S., working to ensure his daughters had outdoor survival skills and and an appreciation of national parks. He loved jazz and bluegrass music. With no formal musical training, he taught himself to play banjo, guitar, fiddle and mandolin, and he designed and hand-crafted 5-string banjos.
He was also an avid astronomer and built several reflecting telescopes and enjoyed participating in neighborhood “star” parties. In 1973, he took his family to Africa to witness and record on film one of the longest total solar eclipses of modern times.
Pete is survived by his wife Julia of Camano Island; daughters Sonya Lee Petrakis and her husband Bruce Couch of Lake Oswego, Oregon; Tina Petrakis and her son, Lorenzo of Pacifica; brother Nicholas and his wife Patricia of San Francisco; step-daughter, Elizabeth Stam, her husband, Randy Kinnunen, and their two daughters, Julia and Caitlin, all of Camano Island; step-son, Allan Stam, his wife Eileen, and their three sons of Saline, Michigan.
At Pete’s request, a Celebration of Life service was held privately at the family home on March 13. Pete requested 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. B3
Early Peter Petrakis articles, from 1969 to 1973
Sept. 30, 1969
Feb. 28, 1970
April 17, 1970
Oct. 26, 1970
Dec. 23, 1970
June 7, 1971
Nov. 28, 1973