When a $1.4 billion penalty was proposed against PG&E in September following the California Public Utilities Commission’s investigations into the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, Karen Paull ‘91, Chief Counsel of the CPUC’s independent Office of Ratepayer Advocates (ORA) cared deeply about the outcome.
Not only because she and her colleagues have not forgotten the tragic death of one of their own (ORA analyst Jacki Greig) in the explosion that killed 8, injured 66, and leveled 38 homes in a horrific fire. But also because the long, arduous struggle was central to the ORA’s mission to ensure that public utility service is safe, reliable, and affordable. It is a mission to which Paull ‘91 has tirelessly devoted the last 15 years of her career in public interest law.
“My whole life I’ve felt a deep commitment to doing my part about injustice in the world. I inherited the aspect of the Jewish tradition that says we should challenge injustice and do what we can to repair the brokenness in the world. That’s a core value for me,” Paull said.
Raised in New York City, she finished Hunter College High School at 17, headed off to a state college, and spent nine years living in Paris. After meeting her husband and having a baby, she settled in Berkeley near family. But she struggled to find meaningful work that also paid an adequate living. By the time she was 36, her marriage had ended and she was “doing one thing to put food on the table and something else to make the world a better place,” while providing for her child.
At one workplace she became a shop steward and represented a group of employees at a hearing. The hearing officer told her that she had done a great job -- better than many lawyers he had dealt with.
”It started to dawn on me that this was something I could and might want to do,” she said.
Braving her uncertainties about competing with younger students without family responsibilities, she applied and was accepted to UC Hastings.
“There were very few students my age - maybe three in a class of 600,” she recalled. “But it was exciting to go back to school and learn completely new stuff at 37.”
Summer jobs were an important complement to the coursework, providing valuable experiences that accelerated her transition into the profession.
The summer after her first year she worked in a plaintiff-side employment law firm, in line with the field of law she thought she would pursue. But after her second year, she landed a summer job in the Public Rights Division of the state Attorney General’s office, which broadened her perspectives on new and equally interesting legal specialties.
A semester-long externship with California Supreme Court Justice Joyce Kennard was also of tremendous benefit. These experiences built the gangplank to her first job upon graduation -- as a staff attorney with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. She stayed for six years, relishing the intellectual stimulus it provided.
In 1999, Paull was hired at the CPUC, partly for her experience in appellate law. Not long after, she would have a rare chance to follow her work on a case stemming from the California energy crisis of 2000-2001 that ended up going to the US Supreme Court. Paull co-authored an amicus brief on behalf of the Commission . Her colleague Elizabeth McQuillan praised Paull’s “knack for distilling the essence of arguments, her clear writing, and compelling advocacy.”
The CPUC would not pay for Paull and McQuillan to travel to Washington D.C, for the oral argument in 2009, but they were determined to go. They booked cheap flights and Paull found beds in a Quaker hostel for $50 a night. They walked over to the Supreme Court in the morning, were seated in the section for members of the bar (both had been admitted), and heard their brief being filed and read by the justices before the argument.
Her position in the independent Office of Ratepayer Advocates is essentially the conscience of the state’s Public Utility Commission. Paull represents the public’s interests vis-a-vis the utilities in billion-dollar cases that impact customers’ utility bills and also the environment, public health, and safety.
“We all learned the hard way in September 2010 when PG&E’s gas transmission line blew up in San Bruno, how horrible it can be when service is not provided safely,” Paull said.
Utility companies have an ongoing responsibility and legal duty to provide safe service, she explained.
“But because PG&E not only failed to provide safe service but neglected and mismanaged its gas pipeline system for a very long time, there’s now an enormous amount of work and funding required to fix it and the company wants the ratepayers to pay for as much of it as possible. So ORA has had to become involved to see that the ratepayers don't get charged more than their fair share of the cost -- and also to make sure all this the remedial work is done competently.”
As another example of ORA’s advocacy, she cites the ongoing struggle over who should pay for the defective San Onofre nuclear power plant in Southern Calif, shut down in 2012 and never restored to service. The ORA made the case that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on new steam generators that turned out to be defective and caused the shutdown should not be the customers’ burden.
“We had to fight for that,” Paull said. “The ratepayer should not have to pay.”
“Much of what we do is adversarial to the wishes of powerful people in the state with better connections and better resources,” said ORA Director Joseph Como, who promoted Paull to her current position. “But Karen has put her heart and soul into the job. Se always gives us the best shot at a good outcome for the customers and is always thinking of the next fight!”
“She really is a Joan of Arc: nothing intimidates her,” McQuillan said. “And when you layer on legal battling with the political and institutional issues -- that’s really important, in this position.”
But Paull prefers to see the achievements of the ORA as a collective effort of extraordinarily dedicated people.
“Sometimes opposing counsel makes the mistake of assuming that public sector lawyers are all a bunch of lazy incompetent people,” Paull said. “They are surprised when they find out that some of those working for government are actually quite good lawyers. They’re just working for a lot less money.”
Many such lawyers do at some point in their careers go to work for the private sector, she said.
“If I or any of my colleagues switched sides, we could earn several times what we earn as a government employee. But I made the right choices for me.”