S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster’s move to unilaterally appoint Santee Cooper’s next board chairman could put the embattled state-owned utility on shaky legal ground, two top lawmakers said Monday.
After the S.C. Senate failed to confirm former S.C. Attorney General Charlie Condon to the position of chairman earlier this year, McMaster appointed the Charleston Republican to the job Monday, effective immediately.
The governor wants his ally, Condon, leading Santee Cooper’s board after the Moncks Corner-based utility racked up $4 billion in debt on the failed V.C. Summer nuclear construction project before abandoning it last July.
But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry, told The State he doesn’t think McMaster legally can make the appointment. Three other top senators agreed.
Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence; Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield; and Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington; sent McMaster a letter late Monday urging McMaster to reconsider.
“The fact that the Senate has not yet completed its work does not condone executive action that is contrary to the law and to the law appointments have been handles by Republican and Democrat governors alike,” they wrote. “It is an old adage but it still rings true that the ends do not justify the means. Instead of leading us down a road no one wants to go, we would hope that you reconsider this tactic and proceed in the manner our laws intended.”
State law allows the governor to appoint temporary replacements to certain vacancies that come open when the state Senate is in recess.
But, some lawmakers argue, that power does not apply in Condon’s situation — where the job became vacant in December. McMaster nominated Condon for the job in March, and the Senate started the process of screening him but didn’t finish before its session ended.
Legal questions about Condon’s appointment could limit his effectiveness as Santee Cooper’s board chairman, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said Monday. Massey said he worries any action Condon takes as chairman could be challenged in court.
“There are real questions as to whether he is rightfully in the position,” Massey said.
McMaster’s office pushed back on those concerns. Spokesman Brian Symmes said, “Without a doubt, the governor has the authority to make the appointment.”
“We did our due diligence on this,” Symmes said, noting the Public Utilities Review Committee, which screens candidates for the Santee Cooper board, gave a positive recommendation to Condon.
The S.C. attorney general’s office expects one or more lawmakers will request an official opinion on the issue, spokesman Robert Kittle said. But that office was not ready to issue an opinion late Monday, Kittle said.
Santee Cooper has been without a permanent board chairman since December, when McMaster forced out then-chairman Leighton Lord, accusing the Columbia attorney of hiding damaging information about the nuclear debacle and failing to cooperate with the governor’s office.
Condon passed one Senate screening committee this spring. But he still needed OKs from the Senate Judiciary Committee and full Senate. Condon couldn’t make it to Columbia for a follow-up hearing when lawmakers reconvened for a two-day special session last month, and time to confirm him ran out.
Rankin said he thinks Condon’s confirmation must wait until lawmakers return to Columbia in January.