Dominion hires former SC Gov. Hodges as lobbyist as SCANA buyout heats up

Former SC Governor Jim Hodges
Former SC Governor Jim Hodges

Dominion Energy, the Virginia utility seeking to buy Cayce-based SCANA, has hired former S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges to lobby state lawmakers as they prepare to debate legislation that could scuttle the proposed $14.6 billion buyout.

Hodges is among nine lobbyists Dominion has retained to represent its interests in legislative fights, records show. Since Dominion announced the blockbuster deal Wednesday, Hodges and three others have been added to a team of five S.C. lobbyists that Dominion previously employed.

Dominion spokesman Chet Wade said Hodges and the three additional lobbyists were needed to help explain the utility’s point of view to S.C. lawmakers.

Some legislators have expressed skepticism about the SCANA buyout proposal and are pushing bills that Dominion says could kill the deal.

“This has drawn a lot of interest in the Legislature,’’ Dominion’s Wade said. “He (Hodges) is a well-known and well-respected individual. He understands even better than we do the issues that are important to the state.’’

Hodges could not be reached for comment Friday. His entry as a lobbyist could carry weight in the Legislature, where he has many contacts.

Hodges served a single four-year term as governor that ended in 2003. Before that, he was a longtime state representative and Democratic House leader.

Wade said Dominion retained the former governor as a consultant long before he registered as a lobbyist this week. Dominion moved into South Carolina about three years ago, buying SCANA’s natural gas pipeline network.

Now, the company is trying to buy SCANA, reeling from a nuclear construction fiasco that has halved its stock price and raised a chorus of criticism from customers and legislators.

SCANA, the parent corporation of SCE&G, abandoned building two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County last July after the utility and its junior partner, the state-owned Santee Cooper utility, had spent $9 billion on the effort. The joint decision left more than 5,000 people out of work and SCE&G customers asking why they had been billed almost $2 billion for reactors that would not be built.

A key concern for Dominion is whether the Legislature will kill portions of a 2007 law, the Base Load Review Act, which made it easier for SCE&G to charge its customers for the nuclear project before it was finished. The law also allows the utility to keep charging for the plant, even though it won’t be built.

As part of the proposed SCANA deal, Dominion offered to pay rebates of about $1,000, on average, to SCE&G’s residential customers, while cutting monthly power bills by $7. But Dominion insists it must continue to charge some nuclear-related costs to SCE&G customers over the next 20 years.

Critics say the rebate and lower rates are not enough to offset the almost $2 billion that SCE&G customers already have paid for the abandoned project.

Dominion’s nine-person lobbying team joins an already established team of lobbyists that SCANA employs to influence legislators, according to State Ethics Commission records. Those records show SCANA has eight legislative lobbyists, including longtime lobbyist Charlie Rountree.

In addition to Hodges, the lobbyists who registered to help Dominion this week are: Benjamin Homeyer, a former director of legislation for the S.C. House budget committee; John DeWorken, a lobbyist who represents the influential state Manufacturers Alliance; and Sunnie Harmon, who also represents the Manufacturers Alliance, according to state Ethics Commission records and the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog organization that tracks energy issues.

They join Dominion’s team of S.C. lobbyists, including former state Rep. Billy Boan, who served in the Hodges administration.

Many of the lobbyists, including Hodges and Boan, work for the McGuireWoods firm, which has represented Dominion on legislative matters in Virginia. Hodges is chief executive of the firm.

Dominion has through the years been a major player in Virginia political battles, spending $10.6 million since 1996 on various campaigns and causes, according to a story last year in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The company’s political clout in Virginia is “overwhelming’’ the newspaper reported.

A Fortune 500 company headquartered in Richmond, Dominion is one of the nation’s largest energy utilities, with holdings from Virginia to New England and the Rocky Mountains.

John Crangle, a government watchdog with the S.C. Progressive Network, was skeptical that Hodges would carry any particular weight in the Legislature, noting he has been out of office for 15 years.

But, Crangle added, it’s clear why Dominion is beefing up its lobbying team.

“You know what Dominion is trying to do,’’ Crangle said. “They are trying to keep provisions of the Base Load Review Act that allow them to impose charges on people for that moribund nuclear reactor project.’’