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Judge asks PG&E to explain $5 billion in dividends, political spending amid grid neglect

Sparked by a new report July 10 in The Wall Street Journal on Pacific Gas and Electric's yearslong knowing neglect of its 18,500-mile transmission system, a federal judge overseeing the utility's probation case related to wildfires and a 2010 gas pipeline explosion on the same day ordered the PG&E Corp. subsidiary to respond "paragraph-by-paragraph" on the accuracy of the article.

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In addition, Judge William Alsup of the US District Court for the Northern District of California asked Pacific Gas and Electric, or PG&E, to explain why it paid nearly $5 billion in dividends to shareholders in the years prior to filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January, when the utility was reportedly well aware of its hazardous electric system.

Alsup also asked PG&E to detail its political campaign contributions since 2017 and explain "why those campaign contributions were more important [than] replacing or repairing the aging transmission lines described by the Wall Street Journal article and removing or trimming the backlog of hazard trees, and increasing vegetation management."

PG&E is "aware of the court's order and [is] currently reviewing it," a spokesman for the utility said in an email. "PG&E's most important responsibility is the safety of our customers and the communities we serve."

The order comes as PG&E and its corporate parent are entangled in one of the most complicated bankruptcy cases in U.S. history, triggered by potentially in excess of $30 billion in liabilities related to deadly and devastating wildfires in 2017 and 2018.

The Journal article revealed additional detail on the utility's knowledge about safety risks related to its electric system, an allegation that is also at the center of a currently stayed securities fraud lawsuit against PG&E. Judge Dennis Montali, who is presiding the Chapter 11 cases in the US Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California, in June asked PG&E and the plaintiffs, including the Public Employees Retirement Association of New Mexico, to seek a settlement in that case.

-- Garrett Hering, S&P Global Market Intelligence, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Joe Fisher, newsdesk@spglobal.com