Politics & Government

Santee Cooper chairman suing to block SC governor from firing him over nuclear fiasco

Santee Cooper board chairman Leighton Lord has filed a lawsuit to stop S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster from firing him over the state-owned utility’s response to a nuclear construction fiasco.

In a Wednesday letter to the governor, Lord wrote McMaster falsely had accused him of withholding important documents, and resisting efforts by lawmakers and the governor to investigate the $9 billion V.C. Summer expansion project’s failure.

McMaster has had access to a digital copy of one of the documents that he sought for more than two months but has not opened it, Lord said.

“I have no beef with the governor,” Lord told The State. “I want to clear the record. I want to establish that Santee Cooper and my board fully cooperated with the General Assembly and the governor’s office, and we did nothing wrong.”

McMaster’s accusations were spelled out in a Dec. 8 letter telling Lord that he would be fired if he does not resign by Dec. 18.

“The governor stands by his decision to follow the law and remove Mr. Lord,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said. “It’s disappointing that Mr. Lord is willing to fight harder protecting his own position than he is protecting the ratepayers hurt by Santee Cooper.”

McMaster’s move to fire Lord came more than four months after Santee Cooper and Cayce-based SCE&G abandoned the construction of twin nuclear reactors in Fairfield County. The decade-long effort has cost S.C. power customers more than $2 billion in higher power bills.

On Monday, Lord said he would not resign unless McMaster withdrew his letter. He said the governor was motivated not by Lord’s actions, but by Lord’s support of McMaster’s 2018 GOP primary opponent, Charleston attorney Catherine Templeton.

McMaster’s office denied Lord’s firing was political.

Lord, a Columbia attorney, says McMaster was provided written assurance from Santee Cooper that he would receive documents he demanded and, ultimately, got those documents, albeit four days after his initial request.

One of those documents was a draft version of the Bechtel report, a long-secret February 2016 study that cited critical problems with the project more than a year before its abandonment.

In his Dec. 8 letter, McMaster wrote Lord and Santee Cooper had never turned over the draft version of the report in response to his document requests.

Meanwhile, Lord’s lawsuit alleges McMaster’s office was given access to a “digital data room” where the draft report had been uploaded.

“However, none of the documents made available to you in the data room have been accessed,” Lord wrote in his Wednesday letter to the governor. “Thus, you have had the Draft Bechtel Report for over 60 days but simply never opened it.”

The governor’s office said Wednesday the draft report was buried among thousands of documents but not singled out, and only released after at least three requests that should have compelled it.

Lord pushed back against McMaster’s accusation that Lord’s “repeated absences from key legislative hearings related to the V.C. Summer project” were reflective of Santee Cooper’s “pattern of non-cooperation and non-disclosure.”

Lord, who testified in two state Senate hearings on the nuclear fiasco, argued there is no statutory requirement that he appear at all legislative hearings involving Santee Cooper. Neither the governor nor lawmakers ever compelled him to attend those hearings, he said.

Lord said McMaster’s letter firing him ignores due process and state laws that prevent officials from being removed from office on a whim.

He said the governor’s Dec. 18 deadline provided no time for a hearing to appeal the decision.

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks