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Head of California electric utility quits amid fallout from deadly wildfires

Posted at 8:32 PM, Jan 13, 2019

The chief executive of Pacific Gas and Electric, California’s largest electric utility, has resigned as the company faces potential bankruptcy and possible criminal charges after last year’s deadly Camp Fire, the company said Sunday.

Geisha Williams had been chief executive of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., or PG&E, since March 2017, when she became the first Latina chief executive of a Fortune 500 company. John Simon, the utility’s executive vice president and general counsel, will serve as interim chief executive while PG&E searches for a permanent leader, the company said.

PG&E is in crisis after the Camp Fire killed at least 85 people in Northern California last year. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra told a federal judge last month that the company could be prosecuted for murder.

Meanwhile, the company is widely reported to be considering filing for bankruptcy protection as its stock price has nose-dived after it said in November that it could be liable for billions of dollars in excess of its insurance coverage from fires both last year and in 2017.

The Camp Fire, which ignited in November, was the world’s costliest national disaster in 2018, causing more than $16 billion in damage, three-quarters of it uninsured, the German insurance company Munich Re reported this month. The California Insurance Department said the Camp Fire and two other wildfires last year destroyed 19,000 homes and businesses in the state.

PG&E faces a lawsuit brought by more than three dozen plaintiffs alleging the fire was started by faulty steel rings atop a transmission tower, which brought dangerous live wires crashing down. The company acknowledged in a court filing in November that it had detected a problem on a transmission line 15 minutes before the first report of the Camp Fire.

The company already also faces dozens of lawsuits from owners of homes and businesses that burned during the 2017 fires. In what was seen as a signal that it was considering filing for bankruptcy, the company said this month that it was reviewing its “structural options” and assessing its operations, finances, management, structure and governance.

PG&E said Sunday that Williams, 57, had also resigned from the company’s board of directors, as well as from the board of its holding company, PG&E Corp. Her biography had already been removed from PG&E’s website by Sunday evening.