Politics & Government

Facing restraining order, public pressure, Santee Cooper drops deal with utility

Santee Cooper CEO Mark Bonsall in an interview at The State in August 2019.
Santee Cooper CEO Mark Bonsall in an interview at The State in August 2019. dmclemore@thestate.com

Santee Cooper’s board on Monday abandoned plans to explore ways to work with a major Georgia-based power company after top state lawmakers and Gov. Henry McMaster intervened, saying the deal could scuttle a potential sale of Santee Cooper.

The state-owned utility’s board was scheduled to vote Monday to study how Santee Cooper can save money by cooperating with Atlanta-based Southern Company on fuel supply management, purchasing agreements, grid modernization and training, among other things.

But that plan was nixed less than an hour after state Department of Administration Director Marcia Adams — tasked with running the sale exploration process — informed Santee Cooper leaders her agency would file for a restraining order to shut down the proposed Southern deal, if necessary.

“Pure politics,” Santee Cooper board chairman Dan Ray said, when asked how the situation escalated. “Marcia Adams seems to be a reasonable person, and I think she and (Santee Cooper CEO) Mark Bonsall have a good working relationship, and I think that issue was over her head. It was not Marcia Adams deciding to file an injunction. It was probably political factors getting involved in it.”

Adams could not be reached immediately after the meeting.

Santee Cooper’s disordered meeting Monday followed a week of back-and-forth between Santee Cooper executives, State House leaders and Adams over whether the utility’s offline negotiations with Southern and another unnamed utility inappropriately flouted the Legislature’s instructions.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers set up a highly structured process to consider selling Santee Cooper after the utility, which serves 2 million South Carolinians, lost $4 billion of ratepayers’ money on the unfinished expansion of the V.C. Summer nuclear power plant in Fairfield County.

Lawmakers tasked the Administration Department with fielding those offers and bringing the best ones to the General Assembly for a vote. Santee Cooper also was allowed to submit its own plan to fix itself, and the utility’s board hired a new CEO, Mark Bonsall, out of retirement in July to do just that.

Proposals were to remain confidential and would be handled by the Administration Department alone.

But on Aug. 31, Adams wrote to Bonsall that she was “quite concerned” and “very disturbed” to learn Bonsall had been in secret negotiations with Southern and another utility.

She said the arrangements proposed “included terms specifically designed to disrupt, bias or circumvent the (sale exploration) process” and that she needs to be personally informed the next time Santee Cooper is approached by a third party.

The state’s most powerful lawmaker, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and the governor’s office echoed those concerns in their own letters to Santee Cooper.

Bonsall and Ray disagreed. In a letter to Leatherman, Bonsall wrote that the agreement doesn’t interfere with the sale exploration process, but instead “properly pursues Santee Cooper’s statutory mandate to reform itself.”

“There is no basis to criticize it, and we stand by it,” Bonsall wrote. “It seeks only to find ways to make things better. That, however, seems precisely why it is being attacked.”

Still, Santee Cooper’s board dropped the plan Monday within a minute of meeting Monday at the Wampee Conference Center in Pinopolis. Board chairman Ray said the board has no plans to bring the Southern agreement back up for a vote.

Ray defended the agreement but said Santee Cooper’s board was sensitive to outside concerns that the deal could affect the sale process. The board already was planning to drop the Southern deal before Adams threatened the restraining order to stop them, he said.

“Let’s not create more issues,” Ray said.

Bonsall said Santee Cooper is still interested in partnering with other utilities but will make sure to get Adams’ OK first.

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