As customers suffered in the cold, Gold-Williams and other CPS Energy leaders drafted letter in support of management

Internal emails reveal disjointed messaging from the utility during February’s deadly winter storm

SAN ANTONIO – During the third day of February’s bitter freeze, as hundreds of thousands of CPS Energy customers tried to survive without power, President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams and other senior leaders of the utility drafted a letter of support for her and management, according to internal emails obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders.

CPS officials confirm the letter, which highlighted Gold-Williams’ zest for the job and leadership skills, was never sent to the public even though she and other leaders of the utility crafted it over several hours. Prior to this report, the letter was largely unknown to anyone outside of CPS upper management.

The February 17 note was written and edited during arguably the most critical day of the winter storm event. A majority of the 6 wrongful death cases filed against CPS Energy since mid-February involve people who died on or after Feb. 17, the day the letter was drafted.

The timing was harshly criticized by San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg last week when he was shown a copy of the letter by the Defenders.

“We’ll acknowledge that there was probably morale issues happening that this was supposed to buoy, but it’s certainly not the right time to be doing that,” Nirenberg told KSAT 12.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg criticized the timing of the letter in support of Gold-Williams. (KSAT)

The mayor, who sits on CPS Energy’s board of trustees, confirmed he was not consulted on the drafting of it and said utility leadership should have instead been focusing their attention on getting the city through the power outage emergency.

“Our focus as a city and my focus as mayor during a crisis is to zero in on the work that needs to get done. We can argue about the formalities later,” said Nirenberg.

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“...passionate about serving our community”

The draft of the letter was included among more than 2,000 pages of internal emails sent between CPS Energy employees before and during February’s winter blast.

The records were released to the Defenders April 7 in response to an open records request, following several delays from the utility.

The first mention of the letter the Defenders could find was in an email from Gold-Williams’ chief of staff sent Feb. 17. The email from Loretta Kerner summarized that morning’s “daily senior chief’s call.”

During the 8:30 a.m. call, Gold-Williams said that the utility’s director of government relations, John Leal, had spoken with Board Chair Dr. Willis Mackey “regarding a message on behalf of the Board in support of management,” the email states.

At 10:46 a.m. Leal forwarded a draft of the letter, writing “I struggle knowing that whatever the chair says will be criticized by critics of this event.” Leal then wrote that regardless of that, he supported the idea of Mackey releasing a statement.

At noon, Gold-Williams forwarded a version of the note that included her comments.

The letter started with an apology from Mackey to CPS customers for having to go through the outages and then mentioned that many CPS employees themselves were experiencing both rotating and continuous outages.

The third paragraph of the note stated that Gold-Williams “was born and raised in San Antonio and is passionate about serving our community, as are her hardworking leadership team members.”

“My fellow board members and I are very supportive and believe in the work that Paula and her team are diligently executing to help re-stabilize our community and state’s power grid,” the note states.

Senior Director of Communications Melissa Sorola added an edit a half-hour after Gold-Williams, and then Kerner made one additional change just after 1 p.m., records show.

The letter, however, was then never released to the public.

CPS officials refused to make Gold-Williams available for an interview for this story and instead released a written statement defending the decision of leadership to draft a letter but then ultimately not send it to the public.

CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams speaks with the media March 12. (KSAT)

“CPS Energy has multiple ways of communicating with its customers, community and employees. While a letter was drafted for our Board Chair, there were challenges with that option, including the time it would take to get it out to everyone. Alternatively, the Chair instructed the CEO to actively focus on other forms of media, including interviews and stakeholder updates that were happening frequently,” said spokeswoman Nora Castro via email.

Castro pointed out that CPS officials hosted seven media briefings during the storm and in the days after it ended.

Since the storm passed, CPS officials have refused months of repeated requests from KSAT to have Gold-Williams take part in a live question and answer session during the 6 p.m. news or to take part in interviews about the utility’s handling of the power crisis.

Gold-Williams last answered questions from KSAT on March 12, during a press conference to announce a lawsuit filed by the utility against the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

Mackey did not respond to multiple emails requesting an interview for this story.

CPS Energy uses a college student for weather forecasting. That’s not how other major Texas utilities operate.

“refocus the emotion”

The drafted letter that never went out was part of the at-times disjointed messaging from the local utility regarding the storm.

On Feb. 12, in an email thread on staffing adjustments ahead of the arrival of the winter weather, CPS’ Chief Customer Engagement Officer Rudy Garza wrote, “It’s game time! This is what we do as the best utility in the country.”

Within days, however, records show Garza was involved in a back and forth with CPS Chief Administrative Officer Lisa Lewis about how specific the utility should be with the public about how long the power outages could last.

Garza wrote that they had taken a “less specific” approach, while Lewis repeatedly wrote the utility needed to be as specific as possible.

“Few can understand where we are on Comms (communications) better than I can. People are demanding specifics. People are calling every employee demanding specifics. Yes, as long as temps remain below freezing. That is into the weekend. We need to tell people,” wrote Lewis during the Feb. 16 exchange.

Lewis previously served as the utility’s vice president of corporate communications.

CPS Energy Chief Customer Engagement Officer Rudy Garza proclaimed "It's game time!" a few days before the winter storm's arrival. (KSAT)

In a separate thread Feb. 15, CPS Vice President of Community Engagement & Corporate Responsibility K.J. Feder forwarded an email from someone not associated with the utility that recommended the communications department post photos of people enjoying the snow to “refocus the emotion.”

Feder said the woman ran an executive course that she was currently enrolled in.

A review of the utility’s social media accounts shows that communication staffers did not follow the woman’s suggestion.

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Mayoral candidates call for Gold-Williams to be replaced

During a live KSAT, San Antonio Report and Bexar Facts mayoral forum last week Mayor Nirenberg said it was still premature to remove Gold-Williams as head of CPS Energy.

Mayor Nirenberg in late February formed a committee to investigate the handling of the storm by CPS, SAWS and the city itself.

The committee, chaired by former San Antonio city councilman and former SAWS board member Reed Williams, has met multiple times and continues the process of getting access to information from the public entities.

“Any dive that Reed Williams does is going to be deep. He’s a very thorough representative of the public. I have told them to ask any question of both agencies and the city that they need to ask,” said Nirenberg during an interview with the Defenders last week.

Nirenberg pushed back when asked if the committee would only do a shallow inspection of what went wrong.

“If they don’t get access that they need, I will step in as mayor and make sure that they do,” he said.

Some of Nirenberg’s opponents in the May 1 mayoral race, however, said it’s time for Gold-Williams to be replaced.

“People make mistakes in leadership roles all the time. It’s how you respond to that and communicate it and own it. We didn’t see that out of CPS Energy afterward, and I was watching it,” said mayoral candidate Greg Brockhouse, who added that the “insular nature” of CPS’ response to the storm was also concerning to him.

“You cannot predict the future, but you can prepare for it. It was a failure of preparedness and then when they had the chance to answer for it, unfortunately, I believe they failed,” said Brockhouse, whose comments came during a live KSAT, San Antonio Report and Bexar Facts mayoral forum last week.

Denise Gutierrez-Homer, the other mayoral candidate to take part in a live forum, said CPS failed to properly communicate during the days-long storm.

When asked specifically if Gold-Williams should be replaced as president and CEO of the utility, Gutierrez-Homer said, “Well her job performance proves it. I believe so. I think we have to look at quite a few people at CPS.”

Claim denied

For CPS customer Raul Villarreal, his frustration with the utility has extended well beyond February’s storm.

Facing a third straight day of power outages and with the firewood in his backyard covered in snow, Villarreal took the drastic step of chopping up his wooden bed frame and using it to keep an outdoor fireplace going during the storm.

“That was the last resort I ended up doing to heat up water, to cook food and try to keep my kids warm,” said Villarreal, who claims his home was without power for more than 72 consecutive hours in mid-February.

He said he also used the chopped up bed frame as wood for the fireplace to heat up metal pots and pans, which he would then use as heaters inside.

After a representative from Villarreal’s homeowners insurance company said he could not file a claim because the storm was not a natural disaster, he filed a claim with CPS to be reimbursed for a new bed frame as well as to cover the cost of food in his refrigerator that spoiled during the prolonged outages.

Villarreal on April 14 got an email back from a CPS claims representative stating that even though the utility was sympathetic to his situation, it was not liable for any of his losses.

“It’s just been handled horribly, not only myself, but everybody else out there,” said Villarreal.

About the Authors

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.

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