Santee Cooper: Utility’s Tone Deafness Continues With Half-Million Dollar ‘Hush Money’ Agreement

Former utility attorney gets $500,000 on his way out the door …

If you thought South Carolina’s spectacularly failed government-run utility Santee Cooper couldn’t possibly get any more tone deaf … think again. The “rogue agency” has sounded yet another costly wrong note … one that puts its ratepayers on the hook (again) for its systemic shortcomings.

A week after giving one of its current executives a totally undeserved $165,000 bonus payment for crafting a since-shredded “reform” plan, Santee Cooper has awarded its former in-house counsel Mike Baxley a $495,000 severance package after firing him in April.

Well, $388,800 of that settlement was severance pay … the other $156,200 secured Baxley’s signature on an agreement avoiding “further litigation” with the utility. Not surprisingly, this agreement included a non-disparagement clause prohibiting Baxley from saying anything negative about his former employer.

You know … hush money.

News of Baxley’s termination was exclusively reported by this news outlet. In fact, our coverage of his firing helped expose a glaring lack of diversity at the government-run agency. Meanwhile, news of his severance deal was first reported by Andrew Brown of The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier on Thursday.

Given the massive sums Santee Cooper is shelling out to law firms all across the state, we are not entirely sure why it would have needed an in-house counsel … but then again, efficiency has never been a watchword for this brazen, bloated bureaucracy.

If anything the opposite has been true … as evidenced by Santee Cooper’s starring role in the 2017 #NukeGate debacle, the botched construction of a pair of next-generation nuclear reactors in Jenkinsville, S.C. that has set the state, its ratepayers and taxpayers back by more than $10 billion.

This command economic disaster – spearheaded by state lawmakers and utility executives – has put Santee Cooper in a severely compromised position, one that has grown direr amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers have been debating the utility’s future for the past three years – but have yet to take action (thanks to an influential clique of Santee Cooper advocates in the S.C. Senate).

As we reported back in April, Baxley’s termination was intended to “send a message” to S.C. speaker of the House Jay Lucas – who has expressed an interest in continuing negotiations with Florida-based NextEra Energy over a proposed deal to purchase the utility.

Both Baxley and Lucas hail from rural Hartsville, S.C. In fact, Lucas succeeded Baxley as the representative for S.C. House District 65 (.pdf) when the latter stepped down in 1998 to become a judge.

Why would Santee Cooper fire such a shot across the bow?

Because at the time, Lucas was riding herd on the embattled utility following its duplicitous meddling during an emergency session of the S.C. General Assembly. Eventually, the two sides reached an agreement to maintain the status quo … for now.

Our view? To borrow a lyric from Talking Heads, it remains the “same as it ever was.”

Offload Santee Cooper to the private sector.

As we asked on the third anniversary of #NukeGate: How many more years (and how many more billions of dollars) are we going to waste on the demonstrably failed notion that state government can run a power company? Or that a perpetually corrupt and dishonest government-run utility can somehow be trusted to reform itself?

Maybe one day lawmakers will provide us with answers to those questions …




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