Sacramento, Sep 1 (AP/UNB) — The California Legislature voted Friday to allow power companies to raise electric bills to cover the cost of lawsuits from last year's deadly wildfires amid fears that Pacific Gas & Electric Co., would otherwise face financial ruin.
The measure is part of a wide-ranging plan to reduce the threat of wildfires, which have killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes in recent years.
Consumer advocates and large energy users blasted legislation they say is a bailout for PG&E, which expects to pay billions of dollars due to fires started by the company's equipment in Northern California last year. The company would be allowed to charge their customers even if the fires are linked to mismanagement by the company.
"Everybody's getting protected, but customers," said Michael Boccadoro, executive director of the Agricultural Energy Consumers Association. "Utility shareholders are protected. Trial attorneys are protected. Insurers are protected. Victims are protected. Labor's protected. Unfortunately, they forgot to protect customers."
California courts have ruled that utilities are entirely liable for damage caused by power lines, even if they've followed all safety regulations. Lawmakers considered changing that standard but backed off amid a barrage of lobbying by wildfire victims and insurance companies.
Fire investigators have blamed PG&E equipment for 12 of last year's wildfires in Northern California's wine country, including two that killed 15 people combined. In eight, investigators said they found evidence of violations of state law and forwarded the findings to county prosecutors. Authorities have not determined fault for the Tubbs Fire, the most destructive in state history, which destroyed thousands of homes in Santa Rosa.
PG&E is facing dozens of lawsuits from insurers, which have spent billions settling insurance claims from homeowners.
Lawmakers worry the costs to PG&E could be so severe that it would struggle to borrow money or would file for bankruptcy, which they fear would lead to even higher spikes in utility bills.
"This is about protecting ratepayers, not helping utilities," said Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat who helped craft the legislation. "The fact of the matter is ratepayers would be hurt in a utility bankruptcy."
Regulators generally don't let utilities bill their customers for lawsuits linked to imprudent management of electrical equipment, but the legislation would create a special process for the 2017 fires. It seeks to take as much as possible from PG&E's investors without harming ratepayers. For the rest, the Public Utilities Commission would have the option to let PG&E collect from customers through a line-item on utility bills for the next two decades.
The cost to ratepayers is unknown because it's not clear which fires will ultimately be linked to PG&E and what its final settlement will look like. Dodd said the average residential ratepayer would pay an estimated $5.20 extra for every $1 billion dollars that PG&E must finance.
The bill "puts the needs of wildfire victims first, better equips California to prevent and respond to wildfires, protects electric customers and preserves progress toward California's clean energy goals," PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said in a statement.
While the help for utilities is gotten the most attention the bill also includes a variety of other measures to help utility workers
It includes protections for utility workers from job loss or pay and benefit cuts in the event of a utility bankruptcy or change in ownership. That's a major victory for the politically connected International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union.
The bill also would require investor-owned utilities — including PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — to harden their equipment so it's less likely to cause fires. It would make it easier, in some circumstances, to do prescribed burns, clear dead trees and brush, log trees and build fire breaks. It includes $200 million a year for those purposes.
It also extends the life of biomass plants, which use trees to generate energy.
Washington, Sep 1 (AP/UNB) — John McCain is getting a presidential farewell, but not from the actual sitting president.
At McCain's request, former Presidents Barack Obama, a Democrat, and George W. Bush, a Republican, are speaking about the six-term senator on Saturday at Washington National Cathedral. It is the last event in Washington, where McCain lived and worked over four decades, and part of McCain's five-day, cross-country funeral procession. He died Aug. 25 at age 81.
President Donald Trump was told to stay away, but he won't be far. The president is expected to remain in Washington this weekend.
McCain's procession will come within a mile of the White House as it travels between the U.S. Capitol, where the casket was lying in state overnight, to the cathedral. It will pass the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where McCain's wife, Cindy, is expected to lay a wreath. McCain is a decorated veteran who was held for more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He refused early release.
Trump obtained deferments for his college education and a foot ailment.
The memorial stop will provide another contrast with Trump in McCain's carefully designed funeral procession. But the speeches by the former presidents are expected to carry special weight.
McCain has long urged the Senate and the polarized nation to recognize the humanity even in bitter political opponents. McCain's request for speeches by the former presidents, to some, represents that ideal.
"We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe," McCain wrote in his farewell letter to the nation, read posthumously by a longtime aide. "We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been."
By all accounts, McCain ended up liking both Bush and Obama but was not especially close to either man.
"John McCain and I were members of different generations, came from completely different backgrounds, and competed at the highest level of politics," Obama said in a statement after McCain's death. "But we shared, for all our differences, a fidelity to something higher — the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched, and sacrificed."
Bush delivered McCain a decisive defeat in the race for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000. Obama defeated McCain eight years later in the general election.
After his death, Bush called McCain "a man of deep conviction and a patriot of the highest order. He was a public servant in the finest traditions of our country. And to me, he was a friend whom I'll deeply miss."
McCain's service and dedication to working across the aisle — even as he sometimes infuriated his opponents — was a major theme of Friday's ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.
Of those who spoke at Friday's ceremony, fellow Republican Mitch McConnell had perhaps the fullest sense of the McCain experience. The two had served in the Senate together since McCain's 1986 election.
"Depending on the issue, you knew John would either be your staunchest ally or your most stubborn opponent," McConnell recalled. "At any moment, he might be preparing an eloquent reflection on human liberty — or a devastating joke, served up with his signature cackle and that John McCain glint in his eye."
But just about anyone who worked in the Capitol over the past 35 years could attest to McCain's iron will and what House Speaker Paul Ryan called his "distinct brand of candor."
"With John, it was never feigned disagreement. The man didn't feign anything," Ryan said. "He just relished the fight."
"This," Ryan added of McCain, "is one of the bravest souls our nation has ever produced."
McCain is to be buried Sunday at his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy, next to his best friend from the Class of 1958, Adm. Chuck Larson.
"Back," McCain wrote on the last page of his recent memoir, "where it began."
Washington, Sep 1 (AP/UNB)— A senior Justice Department lawyer says a former British spy told him at a breakfast meeting two years ago that Russian intelligence believed it had Donald Trump "over a barrel," according to multiple people familiar with the encounter.
The lawyer, Bruce Ohr, also says he learned that a Trump campaign aide had met with higher-level Russian officials than the aide had acknowledged, the people said.
The previously unreported details of the July 30, 2016, breakfast with Christopher Steele, which Ohr described to lawmakers this week in a private interview, reveal an exchange of potentially explosive information about Trump between two men the president has relentlessly sought to discredit.
They add to the public understanding of those pivotal summer months as the FBI and intelligence community scrambled to untangle possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. And they reflect the concern of Steele, a longtime FBI informant whose Democratic-funded research into Trump ties to Russia was compiled into a dossier, that the Republican presidential candidate was possibly compromised and his urgent efforts to convey that anxiety to contacts at the FBI and Justice Department.
The people who discussed Ohr's interview were not authorized to publicly discuss details of the closed session and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Among the things Ohr said he learned from Steele during the breakfast was that an unnamed former Russian intelligence official had communicated that Russian intelligence believed "they had Trump over a barrel," according to people familiar with the meeting.
It was not clear from Ohr's interview whether Steele was directly told that or had picked that up through his contacts, but the broader sentiment is echoed in Steele's dossier.
Steele and Ohr, at the time of the election a senior official in the deputy attorney general's office, had first met a decade earlier and bonded over a shared interest in international organized crime. They met several times during the presidential campaign, a relationship that has exposed both men and federal law enforcement more generally to partisan criticism, including from Trump.
Republicans contend the FBI relied excessively on the dossier during its investigation and to obtain a secret wiretap application on Trump campaign aide Carter Page. They also say Ohr went outside his job description and chain of command by meeting with Steele, including after his termination as a FBI source, and then relaying information to the FBI.
Trump this month proposed stripping Ohr, who until this year had been largely anonymous during his decades-long Justice Department career, of his security clearance and has asked "how the hell" he remains employed. He has called the Russia investigation a "witch hunt" and denied any collusion between his campaign and Moscow.
The president and some of his supporters in Congress have also accused the FBI of launching the entire Russia counterintelligence investigation based on the dossier. But memos authored by Republicans and Democrats and declassified this year show the probe was triggered by information the U.S. government earlier received about the Russian contacts of then-Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos.
The FBI's investigation was already under way by the time it received Steele's dossier. The investigation's lead agent, Peter Strzok, told lawmakers last month that "it was not Mr. Ohr who provided the initial documents that I became aware of in mid-September."
Ohr described his relationship with Steele during a House interview Tuesday.
One of the meetings he recounted was a Washington breakfast attended by Steele, a Steele associate and Ohr. Ohr's wife, Nellie, who worked for Fusion GPS, the political research firm that hired Steele, attended at least part of it.
Beside the "over a barrel" remark, Ohr also told Congress that Steele told him that Page, a Trump campaign aide who traveled to Moscow that same month and whose ties to Russia attracted FBI scrutiny, had met with more-senior Russian officials than he had acknowledged.
The breakfast took place amid ongoing FBI concerns about Russian election interference and possible communication with Trump associates.
By that point, Russian hackers had penetrated Democratic email accounts, including that of the Clinton campaign chairman, and Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign associate, was said to have learned that Russians had "dirt" on Democrat Hillary Clinton in the form of emails, court papers say.
That revelation prompted the FBI to open the counterintelligence investigation on July 31, 2016, one day after the breakfast but based on entirely different information.
Ohr told lawmakers he could not vouch for the accuracy of Steele's information but has said he considered him a reliable FBI informant who delivered credible and actionable intelligence, including about corruption at FIFA, soccer's global governing body.
In the interview, Ohr acknowledged that he had not told superiors in his office, including Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, about his meetings with Steele because he considered the information inflammatory raw source material.
He also provided new details about the department's move to reassign him once his Steele ties were brought to light.
Ohr said he met in late 2017 with two senior Justice Department officials, Scott Schools and James Crowell, who told him they were unhappy he had not proactively disclosed his meetings with Steele. They said he was being stripped of his associate deputy attorney post as part of an internal reorganization that would have occurred anyway, people familiar with Ohr's account say.
He met again soon after with one of the officials, who told him Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein didn't believe he could remain in his current position as director of a law enforcement grant-distribution initiative known as the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces program because the position entailed White House meetings and interactions.
San Francisco, Aug 30 (AP/UNB) — Authorities are searching for a Canadian woman and her daughter who were reported missing after arriving in California for a camping trip.
San Mateo County sheriff's spokeswoman Rosemerry Blankswade said 29-year-old Audrey Rodrigue and her 10-year-old daughter, Emily Rodrigue, were reported missing Monday.
Blankswade says they arrived at San Francisco International Airport Saturday, rented a car and spent the night at a hotel in Burlingame.
Audrey texted her boyfriend in Canada but he could not reach them later and reported them missing.
Blankswade says mother and daughter might have been spotted Tuesday at Six Rivers National Forest campground, 340 miles (550 kilometers) north of San Francisco. Staff and visitors told officials the people appeared happy.
Audrey Rodrigue's Facebook page says she lived in Montreal. Authorities did not immediately confirm that.
Washington, Aug 31 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump said Thursday that he respects Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell but isn't a fan of the Fed's recent rate hikes.
Speaking about his decision to pick Powell to replace Janet Yellen earlier this year, Trump said, "I put a man in there who I like and respect." But he also said, "we are not being accommodated" by the Fed's string of rate hikes.
"I don't like that," Trump said in an interview with Bloomberg News.
Trump has previously complained that the Fed's rate hikes are hurting his efforts to boost economic growth and also driving up the value of the dollar, which hurts U.S. exports.
The president said that the central banks of other nations are helping their governments on the trade front but the Fed is not.
"That being said, I'm not sure the currency should be controlled by a politician," Trump said.
The president's remarks came after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Tuesday praised Powell as a "phenomenal leader" at the Fed.
In an interview with CNBC, Mnuchin said he respects the Fed's independence and he believes Powell understands the need for economic growth and will therefore be careful in implementing monetary policy.
In a string of comments and tweets starting in late July, Trump has expressed his unhappiness with the Fed's rate hikes, saying they could threaten the stronger economic growth he is trying to achieve with his economic program of tax cuts and deregulation, saying in one interview he was "not thrilled" with the rate hikes.
Mnuchin said he meets with Powell on a weekly basis, continuing a long-standing practice of weekly discussions between Fed leaders and the Treasury secretary.
"I think he understands the issue of growth and he's carefully monitoring the growth numbers and the inflation numbers," Mnuchin said.
In a speech last week at the Fed's annual policy conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Powell signaled that the Fed is still on track to keep raising interest rates at a gradual pace. The Fed has raised rates twice this year so far and signaled that it plans to hikes rates two more times in 2018.