South Carolina lawmakers are livid over the involvement of a prominent contract lobbyist in the latest round of discussions over what’s to be done with government-run power provider Santee Cooper.
Not only that, they believe the lobbyist’s involvement was part of a preemptive effort aimed at mitigating the damage caused when the debt-addled utility’s chief executive officer failed to show for a recent legislative hearing.
We reported yesterday that prominent S.C. State House lobbyist Fred Allen – who is not registered to lobby for Santee Cooper, per the latest S.C. State Ethics Commission (SCSEC) disclosures – emailed lawmakers on December 15, 2020 attempting to schedule a phone meeting with Mark Bonsall, the scandal-scarred CEO of the utility.
Bonsall – who makes more than $1.1 million a year – missed a recent meeting of a S.C. House ways and means panel because he was on a family vacation in Arizona.
According to several sources we spoke with, lawmakers who received the email from Allen were operating under the assumption that Bonsall would still be attending the ways and means hearing – which was held last Wednesday at 10:00 a.m. EDT.
The email confused them, we are told, because it was not clear why Bonsall would need to reach them by phone when he was scheduled to testify before them the same week.
“It was initially inferred that any phone conversations would be supplemental to the testimony (Bonsall) provided at the hearing,” a source familiar with the discussions told us. “Now it is apparent what was intended.”
And what was that?
“Santee Cooper knew lawmakers would be infuriated when an executive making $1 million a year did not appear,” the source added.
Which … they were.
State representative Leon Stavrinakis of Charleston, S.C., referred to Bonsall blowing off the hearing as “a sad example of a deficient sense of fiduciary responsibility to the people of South Carolina, their ratepayers and their employees.”
Which … it is.
Lobbyists tracking the industry told us the saga involving Allen was “catching on with legislative leaders,” who are pushing to resolve the Santee Cooper question at some point during the 2021 session of the S.C. General Assembly.
Just this week, S.C. Senate president Hugh Leatherman – who has become a more vocal opponent of the utility in recent months – announced the formation of a new Santee Cooper Review and Policy (SCRAP) subcommittee.
“Deciding the future path of Santee Cooper is one of the most important and challenging issues I have dealt with in my over-40-year Senate career,” Leatherman wrote. “The decision made by this body will have an impact for generations to come.”
Leatherman added that it was “paramount” lawmakers resolve the Santee Cooper issue “during the upcoming session.”
He also threw a gauntlet down as to what sort of “reform” he envisioned as being necessary in order to avoid offloading the utility to the private sector – something we argued should have been done over a dozen years ago.
“Absent meaningful reform that includes a new board and increased oversight, I see no choice but to divest the state of what is increasingly not an asset but an albatross,” Leatherman wrote.
Indeed … although we fail to see how a new round of political appointees or additional legislative oversight gets Santee Cooper out of the box in which it currently finds itself.
To recap: Santee Cooper amassed billions of dollars in debt in connection with NukeGate – the botched construction of a pair of since-abandoned nuclear reactors in Jenkinsville, S.C.
Enabled by lawmakers, the government-run utility and its crony capitalist partner SCANA were supposed to have produced a pair of next-generation pressurized water reactors at the V.C. Summer nuclear power generating station in Fairfield county in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
(Click to view)
(Via: High Flyer SC)
Despite a massive cash outlay, this project was abandoned on July 31, 2017 with the reactors only half-completed – leaving ratepayers holding the bag to the tune of $10 billion.
In addition to lying to the public, Santee Cooper misled its investors related to this project – the collapse of which has caused the state-owned utility’s debt to soar to nearly $7.5 billion.
Santee Cooper leaders have argued they can address this debt through a “reform” plan – however, as we have documented over the course of the past year, nearly all of the assumptions associated with this plan have crumbled.
Are lawmakers finally seeing the writing on the wall?
We shall see … but Santee Cooper’s ongoing tone deafness, its smoke and mirrors financial moves and its perpetual inability to shoot straight or take accountability for its failures seems to be pushing more lawmakers into the “sell” camp.
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