Politics & Government

After nuclear fiasco, Santee Cooper chief to get $800,000 a year in retirement

Santee Cooper chief executive Lonnie Carter will get roughly $800,000 a year when he retires, according to documents released Friday by the state-owned utility.

Carter, 58, last week became the first utility executive to step down after Santee Cooper and SCE&G announced they were abandoning the construction of two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County. The decision came after the utilities spent $9 billion and nine years on the effort.

Carter, who worked 35 years at Santee Cooper, including 13 as its president and chief executive, is estimated to get paid:

▪  $344,572 a year for life from the S.C. State Retirement System. That’s 17 times more than what the average state government worker receives from the system.

▪  Up to $455,192 a year for the next 20 years from Santee Cooper’s executive retirement plan.

In addition to those retirement benefits, Carter has $858,577 in another Santee Cooper retirement account similar to a 401(k) style plan.

An added bonus, in his first year of retirement, Carter will get a half-year’s salary paid over six months.

Executive pay and bonuses at Santee Cooper and Cayce-base SCANA, which owns SCE&G, has come under fire after the companies walked away from the nuclear projects.

The utilities cited cost overruns, construction delays, the bankruptcy of project contractor Westinghouse and falling demand for energy after the Great Recession as reasons for abandoning the project.

That decision cost more than 5,000 workers their jobs building the reactors. Customers of SCE&G also could be on the hook for at least another $2.2 billion in costs to close out the project. Those customers already have paid $1.7 billion for the failed nuclear construction project.

Lawmakers, who are investigating the failed project, were surprised at Carter’s projected retirement pay.

“Those numbers seem to be a little bit out of whack with everyday South Carolinians,” said state Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun. “Especially when projects fail.”

Gov. Henry McMaster also criticized the retirement package.

“This golden parachute is an outrageous affront to the ratepayers left holding the bag in this $4 billion debacle,” McMaster said in a statement.

Santee Cooper board chairman Leighton Lord said last week that Carter will stay on the job while the utility searches for an interim replacement. Carter also plans to continue to testify before S.C. House and Senate committees looking into the multi-billion-dollar nuclear fiasco.

Carter is the highest paid non-athletics state government worker with an annual salary of $540,929.

Advocates for other state workers also criticized Carter’s retirement pay.

“This is the kind of hidden, secretive sweet-heart deals that make the public mad and overshadows the good work and critical services that real state employees provide,” said Carlton Washington, executive director of the S.C. State Employees Association.

Senate GOP Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said that people will be frustrated that power customers will still pay for the projects that are never going to be built.

Meanwhile, some utility executives appear to be faring well in the fallout, he said.

“People are going to be upset about that,” Massey said. “A lot of people are going to see that the utility executives were making a whole lot more than nearly everyone in the public will ever see.”

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope