Politics & Government

Governor firing Santee Cooper chairman over nuclear fiasco

FILE: Santee Cooper board chairman Leighton Lord.
FILE: Santee Cooper board chairman Leighton Lord. caberry@thestate.com

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster is firing the chairman of Santee Cooper’s board of directors, blasting Columbia attorney Leighton Lord’s response to the utility’s nuclear fiasco.

McMaster wrote the state-owned utility “neglected to take timely and appropriate corrective action” to address critical problems with the design, engineering and construction of two nuclear reactors under construction at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Fairfield County.

He also accused Lord – who supports a political rival of McMaster’s – and Santee Cooper of resisting requests from elected officials for information about the project and Santee Cooper’s response to construction problems.

“It is clear that under your leadership and direction, Santee Cooper has failed to cooperate as required providing the information necessary to resolve this crisis,” McMaster wrote to Lord.

Lord said McMaster’s assertions were “100 percent not true,” adding he and Santee Cooper have worked to comply with all requests.

“I directed staff to hand to the governor and the Legislature every single document they requested, and I believe they did that,” Lord said.

Santee Cooper owns a 45-percent stake in the failed V.C. Summer expansion. It and Cayce-based SCE&G abandoned the project on July 31 after spending $9 billion, and weathering almost a decade of cost overruns and construction delays.

McMaster said Santee Cooper – along with SCE&G, the senior partner in the project – had withheld from state regulators and the public a February 2016 report that diagnosed critical flaws with the project long before its failure.

The Richland Republican, seeking election in 2018, said Santee Cooper “resisted my demands” for that report’s “public disclosure” even after its existence was discovered by lawmakers.

Santee Cooper eventually released the now-infamous Bechtel report to McMaster on Sept. 4. The governor’s office released the report to the public later that same day.

McMaster also said the utility failed to send him an even more critical draft version of the Bechtel Corp. report, and provided him “incomplete and misleading” information about its response to Bechtel’s findings.

Lord said he never personally had a copy of either Bechtel report. SCE&G’s parent company, SCANA, did not want Santee Cooper to release the report, and Santee Cooper was working to determine what it could disclose legally, he added.

McMaster gave Lord until Dec. 18 to resign, threatening to remove him after that.

McMaster has been critical of Santee Cooper since the V.C. Summer project fell apart. He has been trying to sell the state-owned utility to a private utility.

Lord is a prominent supporter of McMaster’s top challenger in the 2018 GOP primary for governor, Charleston labor attorney Catherine Templeton.

Lord said he could take legal action to challenge the governor if he is removed. “Whether or not I fight him, I’ll determine what is the best interests of Santee Cooper.’’

Lord said he will be at Monday’s Santee Cooper board meeting. He said he is proud of the utility’s legacy in helping to create jobs in the state and irked McMaster’s decision came “out of left field.’’

“I’m kind of upset,’’ said Lord, who makes $24,000 a year as Santee Cooper’s board chairman. “You’d think the governor would call you. You’d think he would give you a heads up. This is not what anybody in public service should have to go through.’’

The governor’s office disputed that account, saying Lord received a call from an attorney in the governor’s office before the email demanding his resignation was sent and made public. Lord missed that call but called back, the governor’s office said.

State Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said he understands the desire to replace Santee Cooper’s leadership but does not understand some of McMaster’s accusations.

“Leighton has probably been the most responsive person to us throughout this entire process,” said Massey, who co-chairs a Senate panel investigating the V.C. Summer debacle. “I am fairly confident that we would not have gotten the Bechtel report if not for Leighton Lord.”

However, state Rep. Peter McCoy, the Charleston Republican who chairs the House panel investigating the failed project, said McMaster’s move showed “dishonest, disingenuous and unresponsive attitudes from Santee Cooper execs will not be tolerated.”