Updated August 15
Lawmakers on legislative committees charged with investigating—and preventing—failures that led to a nuclear project shutdown in July received thousands of dollars since 2008 in campaign contributions from the parent company of the project’s co-owner.
SCANA Corporation, which owns South Carolina Electric and Gas, donated approximately $1.7 million to candidates and political action committees since 2008, according to a campaign finance review by the Aiken Standard. That amount is enough to give each of Aiken County’s 55,000 electric customers a $31 rebate, the Standard’s Michael Smith wrote.
The company has also paid more than $1 million to lobbyists over the past nine years.
The list of state officials who haven’t received campaign donations from SCANA is likely shorter than the list of officials who have. The corporation donates to candidates from all over the political spectrum. Officials at SCANA did not repond to a request on Thursday for an interview.
Asking tough questions before a watchful public
House Speaker Jay Lucas on Wednesday announced the creation of an 18-member Utility Ratepayer Protection Committee, just one day after Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, announced the creation of a similar committee.
“I have encouraged the committee to review and potentially repeal the Base Load Review Act and examine the Public Service Commission’s authority. The State has a responsibility to fully investigate this situation and ensure ratepayers do not experience this kind of failure again,” said the Darlington Republican in a statement.
Many of the committee’s members approved, a decade earlier, a law to make it easier for utilities to hike rates to fund projects, whether they reached completion or not.
State-owned Santee Cooper and SCE&G then partnered in the now-abandoned project to build two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County, eventually spending roughly $9 billion on the project.
Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, thinks any problems in the legal code that led to the plant shutting down likely extend far beyond the BLRA.
The Senate majority leader was appointed co-chairman of a 12-member V.C. Summer Nuclear Project Review Committee, a Senate committee announced this week by Leatherman.
Massey, who joined the Senate after the General Assembly passed the law, said the public and the media should hold lawmakers accountable, making sure they ask tough questions as they investigate what went wrong.
“I think we have an obligation to ask questions,” Massey said. He wants to make sure the committee’s hearings are live streamed, making them easily accessible to the public.
All committee members have received contributions from SCANA, according to The Carolina Ledger’s review of the corporation’s donations since 2008.
All the House committee members, except one, have received campaign contributions from SCANA. The State Ethics Commission has no campaign contribution records on file predating 2006.
Russell Ott, a St. Matthews Democrat on the committee, has returned $2,000 in campaign funds donated by SCANA since the project owners announced the shutdown, according to multiple news reports.
House minority leader, Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, a member of the newly formed House committee, said members will adjust the BLRA to prevent utilities from getting whatever they want in the future. He is not recorded as voting on the BLRA.
Prior to its passage, however, the BLRA was seen as an efficient avenue to pursue nuclear energy, according to Rutherford. “There was no reason not to vote for it.”
Failures in oversight
Rutherford thinks failed oversight is largely the source of the bungled Jenkinsville-based project. The Office of Regulatory Staff, which oversees public utilities, should have been the canary in the coal mine, he said. The agency should have done a better job of evaluating the financial viability of Westinghouse Electric Company, the project’s lead contractor, which declared bankruptcy earlier this year.
Instead, Rutherford said, “they were asleep at the wheel.”
Agency director, Dukes Scott said ORS has no jurisdiction over Westinghouse, but the agency has been evaluating SCE&G since it began the project.
SCE&G announced on Tuesday it would withdraw its petition to the state Public Service Commission to abandon the project, citing concerns voiced by stakeholders and the General Assembly.
Engineering consultant, Gary Jones testified before the agency in September regarding concerns about the project, including questions over Westinghouse’s ability to absorb financial losses if the contractor didn’t improve productivity. Westinghouse acknowledged the risk and assured the agency it could complete the project, according to Jones’ testimony.
Other SCANA contributions to House and Senate leadership include—
- $4,000 to Leatherman from 2011 to 2016
- $3,500 to Lucas from 2011 to January 2017
- $6,000 to Massey from 2008 to 2016
- $3,000 to Rutherford from 2010 to 2017
- $1,000 to House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, from 2010 to 2016
- $5,500 to Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia, from 2008 to 2016
Other notable campaign contributions to committee members investigating the project include—
- At least four contributions to Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla
- One contribution to Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster
- Five contributions to Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Conway
- At least six contributions to Sen. John Scott, D-Columbia
- Six contributions to Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Chapin
- Two contributions to Rep. Carl Anderson, D-Georgetown
- Five contributions to Rep. David Mack, D-North Charleston
- 12 contributions to Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Seneca
Senators Setzler, Alexander, Gregory and Rankin co-sponsored the Base Load Review Act, which became law in 2007. Representatives Lucas, Simrill, Ballentine, Anderson, Mack, Sandifer, and then-Representative Scott voted for it.
Senators Alexander and Rankin, and Rep. Sandifer are three of the six legislators on the 10-member Public Utilities Review Committee, which evaluates and screens for the Public Service Commission and the Office of Regulatory Staff.
Utilities’ involvement in lobbying the legislature includes—
- SCANA’s payments of more than $1.15 million to lobbyists from 2009 to May 2017
- State-owned Santee Cooper’s payments of more than $343,000 to lobbyists from 2013 to May 2017
Organizations frequently host events honoring legislators, including portrait unveilings and formal dinners. Notable events and contributions include—
- A $5,000 contribution by SCANA for Leatherman’s official portrait in January. Leatherman did not respond to an interview request placed through his Senate office.
- Multiple payments by SCANA totaling $3,800 to host “Legislative Spring Flings” in 2009, 2010 and 2012
- A $1,000 reception hosted by SCANA honoring the Boeing Company
- $826 for Santee Cooper to host dinner for 14 staff and committee members of the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee in February
- Nearly $1,500 for Santee Cooper to host dinner for 25 staff and committee members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in March