The California Public Utilities Commission dismissed its chief administrative law judge in July 2017 after it investigated complaints her to management style. The judge, Karen Clopton, contends she was punished for cooperating with investigations into the agency. Mark Rightmire AP file photo, 2012
The California Public Utilities Commission dismissed its chief administrative law judge in July 2017 after it investigated complaints her to management style. The judge, Karen Clopton, contends she was punished for cooperating with investigations into the agency. Mark Rightmire AP file photo, 2012

The State Worker

Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

The State Worker

‘Vitriolic’ arguments over diversity, bias preceded firing of black state judge

By Adam Ashton

aashton@sacbee.com

November 02, 2017 12:01 AM

To her superiors at the Public Utilities Commission, Chief Administrative Law Judge Karen Clopton earned her dismissal for being insubordinate, intimidating, abusive and demeaning.

Clopton says she was a whistleblower cooperating with investigations of unsavory behavior at the utility regulator, and unafraid to call out an agency whose leadership she says operated with an “implicit bias” against minorities.

“That’s why I’m in trouble, you know. Because I talk back, I speak out, I stand up. And I’m going to continue to do it,” she said at a news conference in September that she called to announce her appeal of her dismissal.

And now the PUC, which has fought bruising public battles over its effectiveness, its leadership and its cozy relationships with the companies it regulates, is taking on Clopton in an equally public fight over her termination.

Help us deliver journalism that makes a difference in our community.

Our journalism takes a lot of time, effort, and hard work to produce. If you read and enjoy our journalism, please consider subscribing today.

The agency dismissed her in August after its five commissioners approved a 26-page report that described two years of combative conversations between Clopton and her peers.

“Your style of communication with others has been confrontational and intimidating and has not improved even after direction from the commissioners,” the report says.

Both documents – Clopton’s appeal and the PUC’s report on her management – show that race was a front-burner topic for Clopton during her time at the agency. She was the agency’s first African-American chief administrative law judge, giving her responsibility for about 40 other judges who weighed complaints regarding the state’s largest power companies.

Her appeal says she confronted commissioners and staff over “racially discriminatory conduct and statements.”

When the commission asked its managers to attend race sensitivity training, it hired a consultant who Clopton in her complaint said used “archaic debunked racist theories of white supremacy.” Her lawyer said the presentation included anthropological descriptions of racial groups, such as “negroid.”

Clopton filed complaints about the presentation, too, her representatives said.

Clopton’s appeal draws attention to a tumultuous period at the PUC when the agency faced scrutiny for the nature of relationships it allowed between PUC leaders and the companies they regulate. In 2014, the agency leveled a $1 million penalty on PG&E because of the company’s improper and unreported contacts with PUC officials that appeared aimed at steering decisions to benefit the company. One set of emails that emerged showed PG&E attempting to influence the selection of an administrative judge weighing a case that involved the company.

Subsequent investigations have shown that former PUC President Michael Peevey at a 2013 event in Poland appeared to negotiate a settlement for the closure of the San Onofre nuclear power plant without alerting his colleagues or the public, and that commissioners have traveled overseas at the expense of a nonprofit funded by major California utilities.

Clopton cooperated with the PG&E investigation and others. She also encouraged her staff of some 40 administrative judges to help investigators, according appeal.

Aside from handing over documents, Clopton attempted to block PG&E-connected officials from gaining influence at the agency, according to her appeal. In December 2014, for instance, she confronted PUC Executive Director Timothy Sullivan over his decision to appoint an administrative law judge who was perceived as close to the San Francisco-based power company, according to both Clopton’s appeal and the PUC report on her dismissal.

Sullivan believed Clopton was “abusive” and “demeaning” in their conversation, according to the PUC report. Clopton contended she was looking out for ratepayers and alarmed by emails in which the new administrative judge appeared to make disparaging remarks about African-American colleagues, according to her appeal.

Terrie Prosper, spokeswoman for the Public Utilities Commission, did not answer questions about the agency’s investigation into Clopton’s management style.

Clopton declined to comment because her appeal is headed toward a lawsuit. Her attorney, Dan Siegel, said Clopton noticed a change in the agency’s atmosphere in 2014, when the investigations gathered momentum.

Until then, Siegel said, Clopton had felt like a valued leader who managed the independent judges who consider complaints against California’s largest utilities. Clopton also worked for a year as the agency’s interim general counsel.

“The hostility began to develop when it became clear that she was determined to do the right thing” with respect to the investigations, Siegel said.

The agency’s investigation into Clopton’s management documents a number of performance evaluations and counseling sessions beginning in 2014 in which commissioners and the agency’s executive director nudged Clopton to reconsider her leadership approach.

The report does not name its sources, although it describes PUC executives, commissioners and chiefs of staff to commissioners who had combative conversations with Clopton.

The report said some subordinates and colleagues believed Clopton had a “my way or the highway” approach to management. She was known to discuss race in a manner that made others uncomfortable, according to the report. It cited instances in which she commented on different ethnic groups and cultures in a way that confused or offended co-workers.

In January 2016, PUC Commissioner Carla Peterman met with Clopton to discuss Clopton’s performance. The commissioner told Clopton that some subordinates were reluctant to give critical feedback to Clopton.

“I want names, times and dates of whoever has said this or I never want to hear about this again,” Clopton told the commissioner, according to the investigation.

Clopton then reportedly told the commissioner to seek management training opportunities.

That interaction and others led agency executives to conclude that Clopton was not responsive to feedback from the commissioners.

In May, a conversation between Clopton and PUC General Counsel Arocles Aguilar turned into a “vitriolic” argument about race. It blew up when Aguilar told Clopton that Aguilar and others were upset when Clopton referred to herself as the only woman of color at that level on the agency’s executive staff.

Aguilar countered that she was a Latina and knew that others in the agency’s top ranks were Latinas, immigrants or gay.

“Since when are LGBT and immigrants people of color,” Clopton replied, according to the personnel investigation. “That’s news to me. How dare you question who I am. I live my truth. I don’t know what you do.”

By then, Clopton was aware that the agency was investigating her management style. The two lawyers argued about diversity, Native-American history and the agency’s investigation into Clopton.

“So what if (other executives) are offended. I’m offended,” Clopton said, according to the investigation.

PUC President Michael Picker signed the report dismissing Clopton on June 30 and she left the agency a month later. Her appeal asks the State Personnel Board to reinstate her and to erase the negative performance evaluations she received after 2014.

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at sacbee.com/newsletters.