Attorneys representing South Carolina Electric & Gas ratepayers are demanding “outrageously high” legal fees for their work fighting the power company over its failed nuclear project, according to a challenge filed Monday.
What’s more, the objection filed in state court says, electricity users deserve to recoup more of the money they poured into SCE&G’s unfinished nuclear reactors.
Customers would get about 5 cents for every dollar they paid toward the project in the form of higher electricity rates under a settlement deal pending in state court. That’s after class-action attorneys collect a proposed $63.5 million in fees.
The settlement proposal includes $115 million in cash plus a portfolio of real estate to be sold off, including an office building in downtown Charleston and a plantation in Georgetown County. The property is thought to be worth between $60 million and $85 million.
The attorneys stand to take home roughly a third of that sum.
“We will not stand idly by and allow this settlement to be approved in its current form,” said Robert Dodson, the attorney who filed the objection, in a statement. “We will fight this to the bitter end if necessary.”
The objection lambastes the class-action lawyers' legal fees as “outrageously high and patently unreasonable,” and calls the settlement a “drop in the bucket” after one of the biggest financial messes in state history.
The legal team that negotiated the settlement defended its fee, saying that it had successfully uncovered evidence that was key to regulatory hearings and legal negotiations.
"No one thought SCE&G would have to answer for their mistakes. No one thought anyone would be successful in recovery on behalf of the customers," Mount Pleasant attorney Edward Westbrook said in a statement. "But our team of lawyers believed we could make a difference for SCE&G customers, and we have."
The dispute stems from the demise of SCE&G’s $9 billion plans to build two nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer power plant in Fairfield County. State law allowed the power company to start billing customers for the project before it was finished, and they have paid more than $2 billion over the past decade, even after construction was called off in the summer of 2017.
A high-stakes legal fight last year trimmed the final tab ratepayers will ultimately pick up but still left them to pay another $2.3 billion over the next two decades.
The settlement won preliminary approval late last year, but the objection throws a hurdle in the way of final approval. Judge John Hayes III, who has presided over the SCE&G case, is set to consider the plan on May 14.
The settlement deal was tied to state regulators’ decision to bless the sale of SCE&G and its parent company to Virginia-based Dominion Energy, which agreed to cut rates as part of its acquisition. Dodson says the class-action attorneys should reopen negotiations.
“If SCE&G wants this case settled, it better get reasonable and come to the bargaining table with more money for the ratepayers,” Dodson said.
SCE&G said it hadn't seen the objection on Monday.