A rural South Carolina electric cooperative that charges its dirt poor customers some of the highest residential energy rates in the nation is under investigation by the Palmetto State’s utility regulatory agency.
Lynches River Electric Cooperative is based in Pageland, S.C. According to its website, the cooperative has 21,838 “active accounts” in three counties – Chesterfield, Kershaw, and Lancaster. According to FindEnergy.com – which bases its data on the latest federal filings – the utility charges its average residential customer a whopping $159.99 per month.
That’s more than 20 percent higher than the national average of $133.26.
Why is this rate so steep? Because Lynches River is one of the nearly two dozen local cooperatives which receives its power from South Carolina’s chronically mismanaged government-run utility, Santee Cooper. This results-challenged state-owned system recently received a $450 million bailout from Palmetto State politicians who have consistently enabled its debt-addled dysfunction.
My media outlet has consistently called for its privatization – in no small part due to its role in providing inefficient, expensive power through a superfluous cooperative network that is rife with duplication and corruption.
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That is obviously a larger, longer-term debate … the immediate issue facing Lynches River involves a two-pronged inquiry from state regulators.
On November 1, 2023, the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff (SCORS) published two separate requests for inspection, audit and examination related to “alleged unethical conduct” involving Lynches River. One of the requests (.pdf) was sent to the utility’s board of trustees, while the other (.pdf) was sent to its vice chairman Harold Gardner.
Gardner is one of nine members of the Lynches River board, which according to its website is dedicated to “the good of all the people who make up the Lynches River Electric Cooperative family.”
SCORS is tasked with “the inspection, auditing and examination of public utilities” in the Palmetto State. It works -hand-in-hand with the S.C. Public Service Commission (SCPSC), which handles utilities’ requests for rate increases, territorial modifications, generation expansions and other adjudicative functions.
According to SCORS website, the agency “represents the public interest of South Carolina in utility regulation for the major utility industries — electric, natural gas, telecommunications, water/wastewater, and transportation — before the Public Service Commission, the court system, the South Carolina General Assembly, and federal regulatory bodies.”
The request to the board asked it to confirm whether it recently terminated Lynches River chief executive officer Brian Broughton and, if so, to provide documentation of that process as recorded in its board minutes. It further inquired as to whether the decision to terminate Broughton was based on “a contract between (him) and a board member.”
The request then asked the board to confirm whether it subsequently reinstated Broughton – and to provide documentation of that process from its board minutes.
Wait … what?
A quick search of local and statewide media outlets yielded precisely zero coverage of Broughton’s termination – or subsequent reinstatement. The only place we heard of it? On our tip line.
Underlying both of these requests, SCORS asked the utility to explain where and how it posted notices and minutes from these board meetings on its website in keeping with S.C. Code of Laws § 33-49-625.
It also sought information on any recent internal investigations involving its board members.
“Has Lynches River conducted any investigations in the past twelve (12) months into the current board of trustees regarding allegations of unethical conduct, use of position for personnel (sic) gain for themselves or for neighbors and friends, violations of the bylaws and violations of policy?” it asked.
The request to Gardner was far more specific – zeroing in on multiple allegations against him.
“Have you directed cooperative personnel to perform tasks unrelated to their job responsibilities such as to clean pasture fence lines or to work on your farm equipment?” it asked.
It further inquired of Gardner as to whether he “used cooperative resources to have trees cut for neighbors and friends that were not necessary for maintenance of right of ways or not otherwise related to providing safe and reliable service.”
Gardner was also questioned as to whether he directed cooperative employees to “deviate from the standard order of priority when restoring service after an outage to restore service more quickly to a family member, an individual with whom you are associated, a business with which you are associated, or a person with whom you are otherwise acquainted.”
Gardner was further asked as to whether he had accepted any goods or services from companies with a business relationship before the cooperative, and whether he had provided any items to members of his district paid for by the cooperative – including “poles, wire and LED lights” and “coolers and night lights.”
The last question posed to Gardner revolved around his recent reelection.
Specifically, he was asked whether he “transferred from the district you represent to another district and in doing so were you directly or indirectly seeking to influence the nomination or credentials process of an election in which you were an incumbent trustee seeking reelection.”
Gardner and Lynches River has until this Wednesday (November 15, 2023) to provide its responses to SCORS. Count on this media outlet to keep our audience updated on this brewing local scandal.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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