Former Judge Accuses CPUC of Wrongful Termination, Racial Bias

Karen Clopton, the CPUC's former top judge, announced Tuesday in front of the commission's building that she is filing a wrongful termination and racial bias complaint. (Arielle Swedback/KQED)

A former California Public Utilities Commission administrative judge announced Tuesday afternoon that she is filing a legal complaint with the State Personnel Board alleging wrongful termination of a whistleblower and systemic racial bias.

The CPUC oversees privately owned electric, gas and transportation companies. Administrative judges hear cases in a court-like setting that determine everything from your electric bill to ride-hailing app regulations and utility investigations.

But the regulatory agency has been under fire for a series of scandals and mishaps since 2010, when a gas pipeline owned by PG&E exploded in San Bruno, killing eight people and laying bare the agency's failure to adequately police utilities.

The investigation into the San Bruno explosion revealed, in tens of thousands of emails, the cozy relationships between CPUC officials and the companies they oversee. Those emails revealed that CPUC staff and three PG&E executives communicated about which administrative law judge should handle a rate case.

The emails also led to another scandal: While agents from the state attorney general’s office were searching a former CPUC president's home, they found notes containing the outline of a settlement related to the shutdown and decommissioning of San Onofre.

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The final deal saddled ratepayers with a $3.3 billion bill. That settlement is now under fire because of questions over whether it was influenced by a secret Warsaw meeting, which under state law should have been disclosed at the time by the utility company.

Beginning in 2014, former chief administrative law judge Karen V. Clopton worked with state and federal investigators to determine whether any laws were broken by the communications between PG&E and members of the commission. She instructed all of the judges on her staff to cooperate with these investigations.

Clopton also removed now-former CPUC Commissioner Michael Florio from the San Onofre proceeding after emails from the San Bruno investigation showed his ties to utility executives.

Now, Clopton has filed a complaint against the agency alleging unlawful termination and systematic racial discrimination against black judges. She claims that she was fired in retaliation for speaking out against the commission's "unethical conduct" and communications with PG&E.

“All of us, as officers of the court, both lawyers and judges, as public servants, we owe the American public an educated, unbiased and independent judiciary," she said at a press conference in front of the CPUC building Tuesday.

Clopton became the first black chief administrative law judge at the agency in 2009. In her role she managed a staff of more than 100 people, including 40 judges. She also oversaw several prominent cases. In addition to weighing in on the PG&E and San Onofre scandals, she oversaw the case in which commissioners fined Uber $7.3 million for refusing to give regulators information on the company's business practices. She was removed from her position in August.

As part of her complaint Clopton also alleges that there is systemic racial discrimination at the agency.

In her former role, Clopton recommended that CPUC Executive Director Timothy Sullivan not appoint Michael Colvin as an administrative law judge based on his relationship with PG&E employees. The complaint alleges that emails show that Colvin wrote to PG&E staff about issues pending before the commission and disparaged black administrative judges.

The complaint also alleges that the agency's mandated training program for all supervisors and managers included "archaic debunked racist theories of white supremacy." Clopton says she fought against racial bias at the agency by conducting implicit bias trainings for judges and discussing her concerns about racial discrimination.

“That’s why I’m in trouble, you know. Because I talk back, I speak out, I stand up. And I’m going to continue to do it," she said.

Agency staff raised concerns about gender discrimination with KQED two years ago.

The CPUC wrote in a statement that they "dismissed Karen Clopton for cause, and will vigorously defend its decision as necessary. The CPUC’s adverse employment action clearly stated the reasons for her dismissal and the allegations put forward today are completely baseless. We will provide no further comment on this personnel action."

Read the Complaint

Arielle Swedback contributed to this report.

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