The timing of Pacific Gas and Electric's Tuesday announcement that company President Christopher Johns will retire by the end of the year is generating some speculation from observers and critics of the California utility giant.
Johns joined the company in 1996 as vice president and controller and took his current post about a year before a PG&E gas transmission line exploded in San Bruno in September 2010, killing eight people, injuring dozens more and destroying 38 homes. The retirement announcement comes about a week after the San Francisco Chronicle reported that federal prosecutors had brought to a grand jury an investigation into potentially illegal ties between PG&E executives and regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission.
That investigation is in addition to an ongoing federal criminal trial charging PG&E -- the company, but not the people running it -- with violations of pipeline safety laws. The state attorney general is also investigating PG&E communications with CPUC regulators, but has yet to file any charges.
Ann Skeet is a corporate ethics expert and director of a leadership ethics program at Santa Clara University. She said it's noteworthy that Johns kept his position following the San Bruno explosion, even as people above and below him were replaced.
"In the initial assessment about who was responsible both for culture creation and execution following the San Bruno blast, Mr. Johns got a bye," she said. "Other people were held responsible for that, and probably appropriately so."