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Henry McMaster Flexes His Muscle On Santee Cooper Appointment

Will lawmakers flex theirs in response?

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Three weeks ago this news site exclusively reported on the failure of South Carolina Senate judiciary committee to approve (or even vote on) the controversial nomination of former attorney general Charlie Condon as the next board chairman of embattled government-run utility Santee Cooper.

This move (or rather non-move) was widely viewed as slap in the face of governor Henry McMaster, who appointed his old political crony to the post in an effort to facilitate a “fire sale” of the debt-addled, state-owned utility.

It also underscored McMaster’s political impotence following a “Republican” primary election during which he had to repeatedly rely on U.S. president Donald Trump to (barely) drag his foundering campaign across the finish line.

On Monday, McMaster sought to reassert himself in the Santee Cooper situation … decisively.

In one of his boldest strokes since becoming governor a year-and-a-half ago, the 71-year-old chief executive installed Condon as chairman of the scandal-scarred utility on an interim basis – effectively making a recess appointment to get his chosen pick on the board of Santee Cooper, which remains up to its eyeballs in the ongoing #NukeGate fiasco.

Was the appointment valid, though?

We’re not sure …

According to reporter Avery Wilks of The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper, a trio of powerful “Republican” senators – judiciary chairman Luke Rankin, Senate president Hugh Leatherman and “majority” leader Shane Massey – are challenging McMaster’s authority to unilaterally install Condon to this position.

Their argument?  That McMaster cannot make a recess appointment to this post because he already submitted his nomination while lawmakers were in session.  The fact lawmakers didn’t act on that nomination is irrelevant.  According to them, the post remains vacant until a nominee is confirmed.

Are they correct in this assessment?  Legally, yes.

In fact, we suspect if lawmakers ever have to take McMaster to court over the issue, they will win.  But this battle is also being fought in the court of public opinion – by a governor eager to prove he is his own man.

On that score, McMaster could pick up some points … even though Condon is the very last appointee over which we would have suggested McMaster draw a line in the sand.

Condon, 64, preceded McMaster as attorney general of South Carolina (serving from 1995 to 2003).  After leaving office, he ran unsuccessfully for governor of South Carolina and later for the U.S. Senate.  He and McMaster are both linked to the political consulting empire of Richard Quinn, whose firm has been at the heart of a multi-year investigation into corruption in state government.

Quinn appears to have emerged unscathed from #ProbeGate, however.

Back in March, McMaster claimed Condon would “usher in a new era of accountability at Santee Cooper that South Carolinians deserve.”

Do we believe that?  No.  However we do believe in the authority of governors to appoint positions within the executive branch – meaning we did not actively oppose Condon’s nomination (nor would we have criticized any senator who voted in support of it).

It’s not the choice we would have made … but it’s also not our choice to make.

“Assuming he survives his confirmation, we’re certainly willing to give Condon the benefit of the doubt,” we wrote at the time, although we did refer to the appointment as a “tone-deaf” move on the part of McMaster.

How did we get here?

To recap: Over a decade ago, lawmakers authorized and empowered Santee Cooper and crony capitalist energy provider SCANA to spend more than $10 billion on a pair of now-abandoned reactors (below) in Fairfield County, S.C.

(Click to view)

(Via: SCANA)

The reactors at the V.C. Summer nuclear generating station were supposed to have been operational in 2016 and 2017, respectively, but that obviously didn’t happen.  The money was spent, but the reactors weren’t finished – and will never be finished as the two utilities cannot afford the estimated $10-16 billion price tag necessary to complete them.  A year ago, Santee Cooper pulled the plug on the project – killing an estimated 5,600 jobs and throwing the Palmetto State’s energy and economic future into chaos.

The state-owned bureaucracy – which we proposed selling at a tidy profit over a decade ago – also tried to raise rates on customers for its botched nuclear project just one week before pulling the plug on the multi-billion dollar failure.  The following month it gave its disgraced former CEO a $16 million golden parachute.

“Lose billions, make millions …” we lamented at the time.

In the aftermath of the fiasco, Santee Cooper is now drowning in debt and the focus of a major federal investigation over the lies it told while incurring that debt.

“Santee Cooper has been habitually dishonest with the public regarding the status of this project,” we wrote in our most recent deep dive on the troubled utility.

Specifically, our reporting uncovered construction schedules and cost estimates included in Santee Cooper bond documents that directly conflict with the findings of a 2016 report on the status of the nuclear expansion project.

Despite all of this, last month Santee Cooper filed a lawsuit with the S.C. Supreme Court seeking to affirm its right to “set and collect rates sufficient to cover all of its expenses, including debt obligations.”

Meanwhile, a decade (and several billion dollars) too late state lawmakers are finally getting around to studying the proposed sale of the utility … but clearly not fast enough for McMaster.

Frankly, that’s the angle we would take if we were in the governor’s shoes: Decisive action versus years of foot-dragging.

Unfortunately, lawmakers have a far more compelling cronyism argument to make against the governor … in addition to the firm legal footing on which they stand in opposing the “interim appointment.”

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