PG&E’s bankruptcy-related attorney fees have reached the $140 million mark, prompting a trustee in the case and a consumer group to question why lawyers have harvested a rising number of billable hours at a time when the disgraced utility has yet to compensate many wildfire victims.
“An estimated $140 million in professional fees have already been billed” in the PG&E bankruptcy proceeding, Andrew Vara, the U.S. trustee appointed to administer PG&E’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding, stated in official court records. The PG&E Chapter 11 matter, Vara added in the filing, is “likely to rank eventually among the most expensive bankruptcy cases ever filed.”
The questions about how much PG&E is paying a fleet of lawyers emerged in connection with the company’s $51.69 billion bankruptcy case that continues to wend its way through a federal court.
“While customers are left waiting in tents and trailers, and PG&E claims it is unable to find tree-trimmers, its lawyers are jumping on the bankruptcy gravy,” said Mark Toney, executive director with consumer group The Utility Reform Network, or TURN.
TURN also warned that PG&E customers may wind up holding the bag to compensate PG&E’s legal team.
“Based on past experience, TURN expects PG&E to seek to recover these fees and costs from ratepayers,” TURN stated a filing with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court that is handling the case.
The U.S. Trustee’s Office uncovered an array of unusual fees that the attorneys sought to extract from PG&E, court records show.
“Internal meetings and conference calls that were billed by as many as 22 attorneys from the same firm, with no explanation or justification,” along with “implausibly high numbers of billable hours recorded by individual timekeepers in a single day, including at least one instance in which a timekeeper billed for 24 hours in one day,” were cited by the U.S. Trustee in its court filing.
“Fees for non-working air travel time” and “fees billed by recent law school graduates who had not yet been admitted to the bar of any jurisdiction, but who were billed at the same rate as admitted attorneys,” were other questionable fees that the Trustee detailed in the court filing.
In some instances, the court filings state, attorneys billed PG&E for work done before the bankruptcy case was even filed on Jan. 29.
PG&E filed for bankruptcy in an attempt to reorganize its finances that had buckled under the weight of increasing debts and a mountain of wildfire-related claims.
The company’s equipment has been found to be responsible for several lethal wildfires in recent years, including a blaze in Amador and Calaveras counties in 2015 known as the Butte Fire, several lethal infernos that scorched the North Bay Wine Country and nearby regions in 2017, and a deadly wildfire that roared through Butte County that was dubbed the Camp Fire.
PG&E also is a convicted felon for crimes it committed before and after a fatal explosion in San Bruno that killed eight in 2010.
“Even for PG&E, this is completely over the top,” TURN Executive Director Mark Toney said, referring to the attorney’s fees.