Irrigation District Charges PG&E with Data Invasion

By Published On: November 10, 2006

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District sued Pacific Gas & Electric and a consulting firm it hired for alleged harm caused by the unauthorized downloading of proprietary district files in October 2005. San Joaquin filed suit in the Superior Court in San Joaquin County November 2, claiming that PG&E and the consultant it subsequently fired committed unfair business practices and violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. For several months, the irrigation district has pursued various avenues for taking over PG&E’s customers (Circuit, Aug. 25, 2006). The district wants a full accounting of what was secretly downloaded and recovery of $150,000 it spent investigating the matter, as well as attorney fees and an unspecified amount of damages. PG&E said the suit had no merit. Spokesperson Emily Barnett added that when the investor-owned utility received the downloaded documents from its consultant, Meridian Pacific, its lawyers contacted the FBI and the irrigation district and fired the consulting firm (Circuit, Oct. 7, 2005). Jeff Shields, the irrigation district’s utility systems director, acknowledged that PG&E lawyers called the FBI and the district, but complained that he first heard about the incident from the local newspaper. “PG&E has never acknowledged its responsibility in this illegal action, which was obviously done for PG&E’s benefit to block our efforts to enter the retail market,” he added. A letter was sent to Meridian in early October demanding that it compensate the district for its loss, but there was no reply, according to Shields. San Joaquin attempted a takeover of PG&E’s 35,000 customers in Escalon, Manteca, Ripon, and unincorporated areas last year. In early October 2005, a Meridian employee was attending a district meeting where the issue was under discussion and accessed some district files via his wireless connection. The district’s computer system at that time was not password-protected. The files were forwarded to PG&E. This August, the district’s efforts to move into its competitor’s territory were thwarted by the county’s local agency formation committee. The LAFCO refused to allow the district to expand its customer base because PG&E was not a willing seller. In late August of this year, the district sued the San Joaquin County LAFCO, seeking a court judgment that the agency’s approval was unnecessary for it to move forward with its expansion plans. A few days later, the district offered PG&E $80 million for its distribution system. The offer was rejected outright. – Elizabeth McCarthy

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