The first black woman to be the chief judge at the California Public Utilities Commission lost a bid to reclaim her job this week when the State Personnel Board rejected her argument that she experienced racial discrimination and whistleblower retaliation in her eight years at the energy regulator.
Former PUC Chief Administrative Law Judge Karen Clopton has one more shot to return to her position overseeing the 40 or so judges who weigh complaints regarding the state’s largest energy companies.
She’s suing the commission in San Francisco Superior Court, where she alleges she experienced racial discrimination and retaliation for cooperating with investigations that drew attention to cozy relationships between Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and the civil servants who were supposed to regulate the company’s operations. The complaint argues that the scrutiny she faced in her final years at the commission was motivated in part by racial discrimination.
The State Personnel Board, which settles disputes between state workers and their employers, found there was no connection between Clopton’s August 2017 dismissal and her cooperation with the investigations that exposed ties between PG&E and the commission.
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The administrative judge who considered Clopton’s appeal wrote in an 81-page decision that her dismissal was based on her “discourteous” treatment of colleagues and “insubordinate” relationships with the PUC’s executive director and commissioners.
Teri Block, the administrative judge who weighed Clopton’s appeal, drew from a PUC investigation into Clopton and heard testimony from witnesses and attorneys over 12 days of hearings in April and in July.
Block’s report describes a number of Clopton’s casual comments about racial issues that unsettled employees at the commission, such as speculating that California voters would legalize marijuana because “rich white people” wanted it and another instance in which she allegedly described North Carolina as a racist state. Other remarks about religions and ethnic groups befuddled Clopton’s colleagues.
The first serious conflict described in the report took place in late 2014, when Clopton opposed the hiring of a PUC administrative law judge who was perceived as especially close with PG&E.
At the time, 65,000 emails between the PUC and PG&E were in the public domain because they were relevant to investigations into the 2010 PG&E pipeline explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno.
Michael Colvin, the candidate for the administrative law judge position, had written 2,500 of them as a staff member for a PUC commission. Block wrote that 12 of Colvin’s messages were considered unprofessional, and three included disparaging remarks about the work of black administrative law judges.
One message, for instance, commented on a judge’s writing ability, and another commented on a judge’s pace. Colvin apologized to the judges and to other staff members, Block wrote.
PUC Executive Director Tim Sullivan proceeded with Colvin’s appointment as an administrative judge despite Clopton’s objections.
Sullivan characterized the argument he had with her over Colvin’s hire as Clopton “bullying” him. Clopton in her lawsuit contends Colvin had a disqualifying conflict of interest that would taint his decisions as a utility commission judge.
Clopton received favorable performance reviews through that period. Beginning in 2015, members of the commission continued to rate her favorably, but they also asked her to work on her management style and noted that she did not take feedback well.
In 2016, Clopton had a contentious exchange with Commissioner Carla Peterman when Peterman raised similar points. Peterman suggested some employees were intimidated by Clopton, and Clopton wanted to know who felt that way.
“Your constant reference to fear of retaliation and general displeasure with my performance by my subordinates is very frustrating, has legal consequences and is impugning my very well established professional reputation, both in the building and beyond,” Clopton replied to the commissioner.
In 2017, the commission opened an investigation into Clopton. In May of that year, she offended several high-ranking leaders when she referred to herself as the only woman of color on the agency’s executive staff, Block wrote.
She was not the only person of color among the 20 or so directors at the meeting, and the moment led to a separate heated exchange with the commission’s top lawyer.
Block wrote the PUC demonstrated that it did not punish Clopton because of her cooperation with probes in PG&E. The investigations began in 2014, Brock noted, and Clopton received positive job reviews until 2017.
Clopton “believed she could ‘dance naked on her desk’ without suffering consequences,” Brock wrote, citing a comment Clopton allegedly made to PUC employment attorney. “When confronted about her behavior, she went on the offensive, vehemently disagreed with and shut down all who gave her critical feedback, accused those who questioned her of racism and threatened reprisals.”
Dan Siegel, Clopton’s attorney, said Clopton’s casual comments about racial issues tended to take place in informal settings, such as lunches with colleagues. He said she fought at the commission to keep the judges who reported to her independent from the influence of utility companies.
“Karen Clopton is a very straightforward person. and as an African American woman has made it her lifelong practice to raise issues of bias when she sees them. There are people at CPUC who didn’t like that,” he said.