The state Senate is suing to block Gov. Henry McMaster from unilaterally appointing a longtime ally to lead Santee Cooper’s board.
Tuesday’s lawsuit, filed before the S.C. Supreme Court, comes two weeks after McMaster tapped former S.C. Attorney General Charlie Condon as the next chairman of the state-owned power company — without the Senate’s consent.
“We have tried diligently to find a way out of this situation short of legal action,” Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said in a written statement. “Unfortunately, those efforts were unsuccessful, and we’re compelled to act today to protect the vital constitutional right and responsibility of the Senate’s advice and consent to important appointments like chair of the Santee Cooper board.”
McMaster told reporters Tuesday the law is on his side and Condon would begin serving as chairman at Santee Cooper’s next board meeting, on Aug. 20. McMaster said he needs Condon to restore order at the agency after it kept secret a critical report about its doomed nuclear project and covertly lobbied S.C. lawmakers against its own sale.
“It is a question of transparency — which I’m attempting to provide by appointing Charlie Condon — versus the status quo,” McMaster said. “It’s simply a question of openness and transparency for the people.”
The legal fight is likely to increase tensions between McMaster and top legislators as the Republican governor works to persuade them to sell Santee Cooper, which racked up $4 billion in debt before pulling the plug on the decadelong V.C. Summer Nuclear Station expansion project in Fairfield County.
McMaster has said selling the Moncks Corner-based utility is the only way to pay off that debt and ensure the costs aren’t passed on to the 2 million S.C. residents who rely on Santee Cooper for power.
But several top lawmakers, including Senate Transportation Committee chairman Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, are protective of the state-owned power company, citing its relatively cheap electricity and its economic development successes.
The Senate’s lawsuit challenges McMaster’s authority to appoint Condon unilaterally to the board after the Senate failed to confirm the Charleston Republican earlier this year.
McMaster tapped Condon for the job in March, three months after the governor pressured former Santee Cooper Chairman Leighton Lord to resign, accusing him of hiding damaging information about the nuclear debacle and failing to cooperate with the governor’s office.
Condon received a positive recommendation from the Public Utilities Review Committee, but time ran out on the 2018 legislative session before he could get an up-or-down vote from the Senate Judiciary Committee or the full Senate.
State law allows the governor to appoint temporary replacements to certain vacancies that come open when the state Senate is in recess. McMaster’s office studied that law and thinks the governor can appoint Condon, McMaster’s spokesman has said.
But, some lawmakers argue, that temporary appointment power does not apply in Condon’s case because the Senate was in session when the Charleston Republican was nominated to the post but did not confirm him.
Santee Cooper’s next board meeting is Aug. 20. If Condon assumes the role of board chairman with the legitimacy of his appointment in doubt, any actions he or the board takes could be challenged in court, top senators have warned.
Santee Cooper has been without a permanent board chairman since Lord left in December. Senators have said the confirmation process for Condon must start over when lawmakers return to Columbia in January.