Santee Cooper chairman Leighton Lord is refusing to resign, days after S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster vowed to fire him over the utility’s response to a $9 billion nuclear construction fiasco.
Lord labeled as “100 percent factually inaccurate” McMaster’s assertions on Friday that Lord and the state-owned utility have been uncooperative with investigations into the failed construction of two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County.
Instead, Lord said McMaster is uncomfortable that Lord supports the governor’s 2018 GOP primary opponent, Charleston attorney Catherine Templeton. Lord added he would have resigned Friday if McMaster had admitted as much. Now, he’s planning a legal challenge to his firing.
“I cannot resign unless the governor is willing to withdraw the letter that he sent me on Friday afternoon,” Lord said at a board meeting Monday, with McMaster attorney Thomas Limehouse in the room. “This letter cannot stand, and I won’t step down until it’s withdrawn. The letter is 100 percent factually inaccurate, and it attempts to circumvent the law.”
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McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said the governor will fire Lord on Dec. 18 regardless. He said Lord’s dismissal is “a decision that has nothing to do with electoral politics and everything to do with the mismanagement of the V.C. Summer debacle and Santee Cooper’s continued inability to be upfront with the people of South Carolina as to how this happened.”
“While Mr. Lord may believe he has served South Carolina well, Governor McMaster disagrees, and we suspect that the hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians stuck paying billions of dollars for this massive failure do as well,” Symmes wrote in a statement.
The struggle over Lord’s job comes months after Santee Cooper and investor-owned SCANA announced they were abandoning the Fairfield County construction project. The venture promised to usher in a new era of power generation but instead has cost S.C. power customers more than $2 billion in higher power bills, setting off a political firestorm.
Last Friday, McMaster wrote a letter threatening to fire Lord unless the Santee Cooper board chair resigned by Dec. 18. McMaster, who now is working to negotiate the sale of Santee Cooper with out-of-state utilities, accused the state-owned utility of failing to address critical problems with the design, engineering and construction of the two reactors.
McMaster wrote Santee Cooper also resisted or ignored requests for crucial information from the governor’s office and lawmakers after the project’s failure, including a long-secret report that had diagnosed major problems with the project more than a year before its abandonment.
Lord said McMaster’s accusations are baseless and would not hold up in court. He said Santee Cooper’s board has directed the utility’s staff to hand over any and all documents requested.
“We have no evidence staff has not done that,” Lord said. “I have never told anyone on staff not to give the governor a document.”
Lord cited a story in The State newspaper Saturday in which Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, co-chair of the state Senate committee investigating the V.C. Summer debacle, described the Santee Cooper chairman as “probably the most responsive person to us throughout this entire process.”
“The facts don’t stand up, and the governor cannot manufacture grounds to remove a director of Santee Cooper,” Lord said. “It violates the law. The governor’s letter is an assault on me personally. It’s an assault on this board. It’s an assault on Santee Cooper, and it’s an assault on the rule of law.”
However, some legislators have sided with the governor.
State Rep. Peter McCoy, the Charleston Republican who chairs the House panel investigating the failed project, said Friday that Lord’s firing showed “dishonest, disingenuous and unresponsive attitudes from Santee Cooper execs will not be tolerated.”
Meanwhile, state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, said the Berkeley County legislative delegation would meet this week to question Santee Cooper officials about whether they responded to document requests appropriately.
“The governor made some serious allegations. The chairman of the board denied them,” Grooms said. “There’s no doubt something bad happened. There was a failed nuclear project. There’s no doubt someone should be held accountable, but the right people should be held accountable, and it should be for the right reasons.”
Templeton weighed in Monday saying McMaster “had a chance to stop this entire boondoggle when he was attorney general, but he decided to do nothing.” Asked for clarity, her campaign noted McMaster was South Carolina’s attorney general in 2007 when lawmakers passed the bill that enabled the nuclear project.
McMaster could have authored a non-binding legal opinion that the law potentially was unconstitutional, as current Attorney General Alan Wilson did in September, Templeton’s campaign said.
“Now, just like a typical politician, he’s looking for someone to blame,” Templeton said of McMaster in a statement.
However, Wilson’s opinion – requested by state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland – has not stopped SCE&G from using the law to continue charging its customers $27 a month for nuclear reactors that won’t be built.
Attorneys general typically defend a state’s laws, offering opinions on constitutionality only when requested by a state legislator, according to longtime government watchdog John Crangle. “Templeton’s argument is kind of a stretch,” he said.
Lord said he understands if the governor is uncomfortable with his support of Templeton, McMaster’s chief GOP primary challenger.
“If he would have told me Friday morning, ‘I’m uncomfortable,’ I would have resigned.”