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Santa Clara and San Francisco counties on Thursday sued numerous natural gas providers, arguing that the companies stole billions from California consumers. The lawsuits were filed in San Diego Superior Court by Burlingame’s Cotchett, Pitre, Simon & McCarthy, which has worked with both counties on previous suits. The suits claim that the gas distributors engaged in “unfair and deceptive conduct” that pushed gas prices to six times the national average, according to a news release. Attorneys did not specify proposed damages but said they will seek “tens of millions of dollars.” “There’s been a concerted effort by these companies to falsely manipulate prices … It’s truly deceptive,” said Nancy Fineman, a partner with Cotchett, Pitre, Simon & McCarthy, adding that the companies engaged in “outright lying.” The suits also allege the companies engaged in “wash trades” — a scheme whereby businesses report sham transactions to create the illusion of high demand. Companies named in the suit include San Diego’s Sempra Energy and subsidiaries San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Gas Co. Also named in the suit is Mary Kathleen Zanaboni, a Long Beach-based trader for Reliant Resources, according to the law firm. “These gas providers knowingly and fraudulently worked in concert to send the retail price of natural gas skyrocketing,” Santa Clara County Counsel Ann Ravel said in a statement. “California residents were hit twice, first as individual rate payers and then as taxpayers who bear the cost for public facilities.” San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera added that the gas companies engaged in “illegal price gouging.” “It’s clear the actions of the gas sellers and traders artificially increased the price of gas for millions of California consumers as well as for public entities like San Francisco,” Herrera said. The other companies named in the suit include Dynegy, Reliant Energy, CenterPoint Energy, Coral Energy, WD Energy, Encana Corp., Aquila Inc., CMS Energy and Cantera Gas Co. Company representatives couldn’t be reached for comment late Thursday. The suits were all filed in San Diego because most of the companies have offices or are based in Southern California, attorneys said. The suits came a day after the indictment of former Enron CEO Ken Lay on charges of insider trading and securities fraud. Prosecutors have said these types of illegal activities pushed Enron into bankruptcy.

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