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Who’s in charge at Santee Cooper? Gov. McMaster wins fight to name board chairman

Gov. Henry McMaster slams Santee Cooper for its nuclear fiasco and its lobbying scandal.

Gov. Henry McMaster slams Santee Cooper for its nuclear fiasco and its lobbying scandal.
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Gov. Henry McMaster slams Santee Cooper for its nuclear fiasco and its lobbying scandal.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster will get to install a longtime ally as interim chairman of Santee Cooper’s board, after winning a legal battle with the state Senate over the appointment.

The S.C. Supreme Court sided with the Republican governor Wednesday, agreeing McMaster has the authority to unilaterally appoint former S.C. Attorney General Charlie Condon to lead Santee Cooper even though the Senate did not confirm him.

The ruling means Condon will lead Santee Cooper’s board of directors at its next meeting on Dec. 10. It also could bolster McMaster’s efforts to sell the state-owned utility, which serves more than 2 million electric customers, directly or through the electric state’s co-ops.

But the Charleston Republican might not keep the $24,000-a-year job for long, according to Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey.

The Senate, which stalled Condon’s confirmation once, still has the authority to confirm or deny Condon’s permanent appointment when it returns to Columbia in January. Powerful senators have bristled at McMaster’s effort to put Condon on the board unilaterally. Others want Santee Cooper’s new chairman to have utility industry experience.

“There was a real question as to whether his appointment would have failed last session,” the Edgefield Republican said. “The way this was handled doesn’t improve his odds.”

Condon’s appointment comes as McMaster pushes state lawmakers to sell the state-owned utility, saying that’s the only way to ensure its customers aren’t saddled with paying off Santee Cooper’s $4 billion in debt from the failed V.C. Summer nuclear construction project.

McMaster has said he needs Condon in charge to restore order at Santee Cooper after the agency kept secret a damaging February 2016 report about the doomed nuclear project and, then, covertly worked to persuade S.C. lawmakers not to sell the utility, undermining McMaster’s own efforts.

“Charlie Condon will be a tremendous asset at Santee Cooper, and I know he will lead with the transparency and accountability that the people of South Carolina deserve from their public servants,” McMaster said in a statement Wednesday. “It is critical that we have a steady hand at the helm while we determine the best path forward for Santee Cooper and its customers, and the Supreme Court’s ruling ensures that we will have just that.”

McMaster nominated Condon for the job in March, three months after he pressured former Santee Cooper chairman Leighton Lord, a Columbia lawyer, to resign in the wake of the nuclear debacle. But the Senate did not confirm Condon before adjourning for the year in June.

After McMaster moved to install Condon without the Senate’s approval in July, the Senate sued, saying the governor did not have that authority.

Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said then the lawsuit was critical “to protect the constitutional right and responsibility of the Senate’s advice and consent to important appointments like chair of the Santee Cooper board.”

Paralyzed while awaiting a Supreme Court ruling, Santee Cooper’s board skipped its August and October meetings.

“We’re pleased and grateful that the S.C. Supreme Court has acted and resolved what has been some uncertainty over our board chairmanship status,” Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said. “Our CEO has already reached out and welcomed chairman Condon to the board. We look forward to working with him.”

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.