Former SDG&E worker Michael Goncalves claims company's gas-detection devices are faulty

SAN DIEGO - A former San Diego Gas & Electric worker said for years, the utility has used a faulty device for detecting gas leaks in homes.

Speaking out for the first time, Michael Goncalves told Team 10 that when he voiced his concerns, he was fired.

Goncalves was hired by the company in 2003, and he was promoted to service technician in 2004.

Around 2006, he said the utility bought a batch of gas-measuring devices that routinely locked up and made faulty readings when trying to detect natural gas and carbon monoxide leaks.

"You put the nozzle right in and it wouldn't register when you knew full well the gas was turned on," said Goncalves.

Goncalves said he would then conduct additional, time-consuming tests, often involving other equipment.

But he believes the gas measuring device did eventually cause problems and burns.

"I know of two service technicians who used the device that had gas explode or flash in their face," said Goncalves.

Goncalves said other technicians complained, but he was the most vocal, speaking up at safety meetings just about every month between 2007 and 2012.

He said after he brought up specific examples of problems with the device at a meeting in 2012, he was fired weeks later.

Goncalves is now suing for wrongful termination, the latest in a string of such lawsuits against the utility.

A jury recently awarded one former worker, David Bryant, more than $2 million -- a decision SDG&E plans to appeal.

Dan Gilleon has represented several ex-workers, including Bryant and now Goncalves. He told Team 10, "When SDG&E tells you to shut up and stop talking and you keep doing it, you're on their target list. They don't like whistleblowers and they don't like employees who talk about things that might make them look bad in the media."

In the latest case, Goncalves said he was told his dismissal was for falsifying time records.

Goncalves, a colon cancer survivor, said for nearly four years, his bosses were aware of his timecard measures to account for frequent bathroom breaks and never objected.

He's now filing suit to send a message about public safety.

"When customers' lives and property is on the line, the problem has to be fixed. The device should have been replaced a long time ago," said Goncalves.

In mediation talks, Gilleon said he learned SDG&E has started replacing those gas-measuring devices.

In a statement, SDG&E said:

"San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) terminated Mr. Goncalves' employment because he repeatedly and willfully falsified company records regarding his location in order to make it appear that he was continuing to perform work that he had already completed, and thus continue to be paid after he had completed his work assignments for the day. Mr. Goncalves' allegations that the company terminated his employment in retaliation for his having raised concerns about work equipment that he used are false.

Goncalves alleges in his lawsuit that the equipment, a Gas Measurement Instrument (GMI) which was one of many tools a service technician could use to detect a possible gas leak, was unsafe. During his employment, he, and others, simply claimed that it was not reliable, causing them to use other, less convenient, methods to detect leaks. SDG&E denies that the GMI posed any safety issue. Goncalves was one of a number of Service Techs, supervisors and other SDG&E employees who raised concerns about the GMI, and SDG&E worked with the manufacturer and its employees to resolve the concerns before finally replacing the GMI in 2013 when a better device became available. No other employee has claimed to have suffered termination of employment due to their complaints about the GMI.

SDG&E fosters a culture where we encourage employees to raise issues. Employees are directed to contact their supervisor or call the company's Ethics & Compliance Helpline which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, if they have concerns to report. As such, it is not unexpected that some employees who are terminated for good cause may say that they have at some point in their employment, raised an issue. Employees however are not terminated because they raise issues and, in fact, the Company has a strict policy prohibiting retaliation against employees who do raise issues.

We look forward to more fully telling our story in court."
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