Politics & Government

SC utility’s directors got free power lines, landscaping work, employees say

At the direction of Tri-County’s part-time board, the electric cooperative’s staff performed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of electric and landscaping work — at huge discounts or for free — for board members and their friends, according to sworn legal statements from two longtime Tri-County employees.

The board’s now-former chairman, Heath Hill, also frequently injected himself in Tri-County’s efforts to repair power lines after storms, directing storm crews toward the homes of friends and relatives, sometimes putting linemen in danger, one employee testified.

The Tri-County employees — two who signed sworn affidavits and three others who spoke to The State on the condition of anonymity — said they followed the director’s demands because they feared for their jobs, citing the demotion or firing of employees who had bucked Hill in the past.

Their accounts add to a laundry list of benefits Tri-County’s board members enjoyed before they were ousted by an unprecedented customer vote Saturday. Those board members gave up on the idea of appealing that vote Tuesday, resigning their posts.

Efforts to reach the board’s attorneys and Hill were unsuccessful Tuesday.

The State revealed in May that Tri-County’s directors — tasked with keeping costs down for customers, who own the St. Matthews-based co-op — had hiked their own pay to more than triple the national average and given themselves co-op-funded health and life insurance plans.

For years, Tri-County’s board boosted its pay by racking up $450-a-day payments for attending an inordinate number of meetings.

They also claimed the $450 a day per diems for attending community events and political fundraisers, enjoyed expensive dinners, awarded themselves $300 Christmas bonuses normally reserved for employees and gave themselves co-op-funded retirement plans that paid out nearly $81,000 to each director in 2008.

Their compensation of $52,000 for each director in 2016 was far higher than any of the state’s other 19 electric co-ops.

’In a difficult position’

The now-former directors got more than pay from the part-time gigs, according to current and former Tri-County employees.

Several board members also used their influence to have Tri-County employees clear trees and debris from private property owned by friends, including trees that did not endanger power lines and should not have been cleared by the co-op, employees said.

According to former Tri-County operations manager Ricky Hanes, Hill and board members Mary Brown and Billy Shannon each called him to demand the co-op cut down trees on private property, overruling his objections that the work was not Tri-County’s responsibility.

On one job, Hanes said, “I called Ms. Brown and explained that the trees were nowhere near the power line, and it was a very tight area, and dangerous to work in. Ms. Brown got very aggravated and said, ‘Look Ricky, I didn’t ask if the trees were near the power line. I asked you to take them down.’ ”

Hanes said when he objected to clearing a tree for the daughter of a former Tri-County employee, Hill responded, “If I tell you to do something, you need to do it.”

After finishing that job, Hanes said he was asked to clear trees in the yard next door for the lady’s brother. The neighbors took notice and wanted their own yards cleared for free, too, Hanes said.

“They did not understand why Tri-County would do free work for two consumers and not others,” Hanes said. “This put us in a difficult position.”

None of those jobs, including some that took several days, were charged to the customers, Hanes said.

“Mr. Hill would also inform us that certain work was not to be billed,” Hanes said.

Hanes said directors had his cellphone number and he became the board’s main point of contact for such requests. Hanes said he complied out of fear of retaliation from board members and avoided telling top co-op executives about the job requests.

Building power lines

The most expensive jobs listed in the affidavits were for the installation of special three-phase electric lines necessary to power irrigation equipment on large farms.

According to a sworn statement from 30-year Tri-County employee John Arant, Hill paid just $2,677 for a roughly $300,000 project that included upgrading the electric system and digging trenches near farms owned by Hill and his family in 2007.

Normally, the co-op would charge customers 75 percent of the cost of such projects, according to Tri-County employees.

“Mr. Hill demanded that Tri-County would not charge or would only charge a reduced amount for services or equipment provided,” Arant said.

At the time, the work was rationalized as an improvement to Tri-County’s electrical-grid system that could benefit new electric consumers nearby, Arant said. But the new lines benefited only Hill and his family, Arant said.

The project was not listed in Tri-County’s long-term plans, and the improvements could have been completed using a “far less expensive route” that didn’t touch Hill’s property, Arant said.

“It was clear this line was built for irrigation purposes for Heath Hill,” Arant said.

According to Arant’s testimony, Tri-County also spent:

$40,000 to install three-phase electricity to the farm of Hill’s brother. The co-op was paid nothing for the job, Arant said.

$60,000 to string 10,000 feet of electric line to a river house owned by one of Hill’s friends. The friend paid $765 toward the job’s cost, Arant said.

$30,000 to install an electric line to a remote trailer owned by Hill’s brother. “Mr. Hill directed that this work be provided for his brother free of charge, and the trailer was not hooked up to service for several years. To my knowledge, this work has never been paid for to the cooperative,” Arant said.

‘A dangerous situation’

Hill also regularly interfered as the co-op attempted to restore power after major storms, several Tri-County employees told The State.

In his affidavit, Hanes said Hill overrode Tri-County storm protocol to have employees “take care of his friends and family first.”

Board members often were among the first Tri-County customers to see their lights turned on after storms, Tri-County employees have told The State.

During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Hill rode around in a storm-crew’s truck, directing Tri-County employees, Hanes said. Other times, he would call storm crews and give them specific addresses to prioritize, employees told The State.

Hill’s interference sometimes endangered employees and customers, Hanes said in his sworn statement.

After Hurricane Matthew, Hill approached a crew from Aiken Electric Co-op that was helping Tri-County with its storm recovery and told them to restore power to an electric line that he said he had checked for problems, Hanes said.

Thinking Hill was a trained lineman, the Aiken crew plugged in a new fuse and re-energized the line, several employees told The State. A transformer exploded with a boom because the line had not been cleared properly, those employees said.

No one was hurt, but the mishap “endangered all downline civilians and members of the public since the line was still down,” Hanes said. “Someone could have been seriously injured or hurt.”

During the same storm, Hanes said, an Alabama storm crew was ready to quit for the night after driving to reach South Carolina and working 12 hours. Hanes said he told the crew to eat and rest at 1 a.m..

But, Hanes said: “Mr. Hill called me and told me: ‘Hell no. My brother doesn’t have light. Get those lines back up.’

“I had to call the crew back to work, with nothing to eat and no rest,” Hanes said. “This created a dangerous situation.”

On the same night, Hanes said, a Tri-County crew that had gone to restore power to a group of customers, including Hill’s brother, found a power line in bad condition and decided to wait until daylight to fix it.

“When Mr. Hill found out, he demanded the Tri-County crew come back again and work with the Alabama crew all night,” Hanes said.

‘Hill Electric’

Employees told The State they complied out of fear of retaliation, having seen other Tri-County employees reassigned or fired after crossing Hill or the board.

One employee said he was demoted and reassigned to another location in Tri-County’s six-county service area because Hill suspected the employee was spreading word about Hill’s perks.

In their affidavits, Arant and Hanes mentioned the case of former Tri-County lineman Wes Garvin, who was charged with looking into the cause of a fire at Hill’s barn. Hanes said, “Hill asked Tri-County to perform an investigation to show that Tri-County contributed to the cause of the fire so that he could recover insurance proceeds from Tri-County.”

But, according to Arant and Hanes, Garvin determined the fire was caused by wiring in Hill’s barn, not Tri-County. After Hill’s insurance claim was denied, Garvin was transferred and “subsequently fired,” Arant said.

“Employees did not want to comply but the Board members would have fired us if we did not,” Hanes said in his sworn statement.

“Because of Mr. Hill’s control and influence over Tri-County, employees often call the company ‘Hill Electric’ in Richland County,” Arant said.

In their sworn statements, both Arant and Hanes said they hoped the board would not retaliate against them for speaking out.

Reach Wilks at 803-771-8362. Follow him on Twitter @AveryGWilks.