Politics & Government

Gov. McMaster tees off on Santee Cooper for lobbying against its own sale

Gov. Henry McMaster on Wednesday called on the General Assembly to begin the process of selling Santee Cooper, an action he says is necessary after the state-owned utility ran up $4 billion in nuclear construction debt and then quietly worked to thwart its own sale.

The Richland Republican, up for election this year, also called on state lawmakers to quickly confirm one of his allies, former S.C. Attorney General Charlie Condon, as Santee Cooper's next board chairman.

"We have a rogue agency," McMaster told reporters Wednesday. "We have a bureaucracy that is operating on its own ... contrary to law and contrary to instructions given by me to the board of directors and staff as well. This must end."

The governor's news conference came a day after his office released 1,236 pages of once-secret Santee Cooper emails, including some showing the utility's lobbyists worked to undermine McMaster's proposal to sell it.

Documents show Santee Cooper-paid lobbyists strategized about how to convince lawmakers of Santee Cooper's value to the state and tried to recruit lawmakers to support the utility against possible offers.

McMaster had demanded the lobbying records on March 6, suspecting the state agency was working to block its sale.

The Richland Republican has pushed lawmakers to sell Santee Cooper since last August, weeks after the utility and investor-owned SCE&G decided to abandon construction of two new reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Site in Fairfield County after nearly 10 years and $9 billion spent.

A handful of out-of-state power giants have shown interest, most notably Florida-based NextEra Energy, which has briefed lawmakers on a possible bid. Within the Palmetto State, the Greenville-based Pacolet Milliken investment firm is considering an offer for Santee Cooper. So is the utility’s largest customer, a group of 20 cooperatives that buys most of Santee Cooper’s power.

But only the General Assembly can sell Santee Cooper, and some lawmakers are skeptical of the idea – citing Santee Cooper electric rates that are among the lowest in the state and the utility’s role in economic development projects.

To date, the General Assembly has not created a special committee to field and evaluate offers to sell the utility, which are likely to be complex. Several groups, including the electric co-ops, also have called for a special committee, but the General Assembly so far has focused on the SCE&G side of the nuclear equation.

McMaster said Wednesday that Santee Cooper should stop paying two contract lobbyists who were featured prominently in the email debacle. Dwight Drake, who is paid $8,000 a month to lobby for Santee Cooper, and Fred Allen, paid $5,000 a month, shouldn't have been hired in the first place, the governor said.

A Santee Cooper spokeswoman said Tuesday the utility had no plans to fire the lobbyists. The utility hired Drake and Allen to help answer questions from legislators after the nuclear fiasco, it said.

Reach Wilks at 803-771-8362 or at awilks@thestate.com. Follow him on Twitter @AveryGWilks.