Political power outage how south carolina lawmakers lost trust in scana palmetto politics postandcourier.com p gaskell

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Cranes surround the construction of one of two new reactors being built at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Power Station in 2016. Work came to a halt in July, generating anger among politicians and ratepayers left having to pay for the $9 billion project. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff The audit

Among a Labor Day crowd waiting for hash browns and country ham, Thomas Limehouse, an attorney in Gov. Henry McMaster’s office, and Michael Baxley, the general counsel for state-run utility Santee Cooper, swapped a key audit on the nuclear project. The report was concealed by nuclear project partners, SCANA and Santee Cooper, for more than a year.

The impromptu meeting was the result of immense pressure being placed on Santee Cooper by McMaster and state lawmakers. The governor ordered Santee Cooper’s leaders to release the audit compiled by Bechtel, one of the country’s largest construction and engineering firms. If they refused, McMaster threatened to remove its entire board.

The state’s electric cooperatives, Santee Cooper‘s biggest customers, started asking about the secret audit months earlier. Lawmakers said they heard rumors about the report, too. But not until a special Senate hearing in August was its existence confirmed.

The approach SCANA’s executives took during public hearings and private meetings with top lawmakers only exacerbated the situation. Where legislators expected remorse and some admission of responsibility, they say SCANA officials just deflected blame.

The company, in that regard, was stuck in an unwinnable position. It couldn’t admit fault without legally jeopardizing its ability to collect money for the reactors from customers. But the demeanor from executives aggravated those who held the company’s fate in their hands.

"It was like, ‘Why are y’all questioning us?,’ " said Rep. Russell Ott, a Democrat from St. Matthews who helped lead the House nuclear panel. "It was a tone of: ‘How dare you question what we did? We’re the executive team of SCANA. How dare you? We’re too big, we’re too important to be questioned. You just have to accept what we’re doing here.’ "

A week after the Bechtel report was released in September, House members were eager to hear what SCANA’s executives had to say about the report’s findings. Instead, the company’s leaders focused on a knee-high stack of papers that they piled onto the table in front of them.

The documents were meant to highlight the construction schedules that SCANA officials said they followed throughout the decade-long project and rebut reports by The Post and Courier and other news outlets that the company never received a full schedule from contractors, as internal documents from Santee Cooper show.

Lawmakers saw the stacks of paper as a stunt meant to distract them from the highly-critical audit. Confronted with the evidence, SCANA’s executives repeatedly emphasized that every decision they made was "prudent." They had underestimated the exasperation at the Statehouse after 6,000 jobs were lost and customers worried they would continue paying for partially built reactors for decades.

A host of law enforcement agencies, however, were taking the matter seriously. Before that hearing, a Statehouse security guard pulled aside committee chairman Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, and told him that an FBI agent was sitting in the back of the room.

Alan Torres, general manager for nuclear construction at S.C. Electric & Gas, peers from behind a stack of papers with construction schedules for the failed expansion of the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station during a Statehouse hearing in September. The amendment

When lawmakers returned for a new General Assembly session last month, they pushed ahead with undoing the 2007 law that allows SCANA subsidiary, S.C. Electric & Gas, to keep charging customers nearly 20 percent of their bills for nuclear reactors that will never generate any power.

Eventually they found a new solution. They drafted an amendment to allow the Legislature to temporarily stop SCANA from collecting the nuclear cash while the state’s utility regulators and the courts determine who will pay for the multi-billion debt.

House and Senate leaders were worried that SCANA and Dominion lobbyists, 18 in all, would bombard rank-and-file members with desperate pleas to oppose the amendment. So they agreed to keep the new plan secret. It was shared among just a small handful of key legislators.