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Ex-SCE&G executive to plead guilty for defrauding customers over failed $9B nuclear project

Nuclear Plant Construction on Track, But at What Cost? (copy)

Then-SCE&G Chief Operating Officer Steve Byrne leads a tour of the V.C. Summer nuclear project site on Aug. 7, 2013. Photo by Sean Rayford

The former chief operating officer of South Carolina Electric and Gas has agreed to plead guilty to defrauding utility customers who paid billions of dollars in high power bills for a nuclear power plant that was never completed.

And more charges are coming after a three-year investigation by the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office Of South Carolina, prosecutors made clear in filings Monday.

Steve Byrne, SCE&G's second-in-command who oversaw the $9 billion V.C. Summer Nuclear Station expansion project before its sudden collapse in July 2017, is pleading guilty to wire and mail fraud, according to court filings.

The filings echo accusations that Byrne and other executives hid damaging information and documents about the project's flaws from investors and the public even as customers' electric rates soared to pay for it.

The charge against Byrne is the first to emerge out of the federal criminal investigation that began shortly after construction on the twin reactors in Fairfield County north of Columbia was canceled by SCE&G and its partner, Santee Cooper.

But prosecutors indicated it won't be the last.

"The United States anticipates filing additional criminal charges against other members of the conspiracy," prosecutors wrote in Monday's filing. "The criminal investigation is ongoing."

An effort to reach Byrne's attorney was unsuccessful Monday.

In a written statement, U.S. Attorney Peter McCoy declined to comment further on Byrne's case.

"However," he wrote, "the U.S. Attorney's Office will continue to protect the citizens of South Carolina from all crimes, be they violent or economic."

The massive V.C. Summer venture was supposed to usher in a renaissance of carbon-free nuclear power amid predictions of greater energy demand in South Carolina. Company leaders in 2007 persuaded S.C. lawmakers to rewrite the regulatory rulebook so they could embark on the project with limited state oversight, win approval for rate hikes as needed and charge customers upfront for the plant, ostensibly saving them money in the long run.

The project’s abandonment set off one of the largest economic crises in the history of the state. SCE&G’s 731,000 electric customers had already paid nearly $2 billion in the form of higher monthly power bills and will be charged about $2.3 billion more to pay off the project's debt over the next two decades.

More than 5,000 construction workers were immediately fired. SCE&G’s reputation was tarnished as the stock price of its parent company, SCANA Corp., plummeted.

That made the utility — one of South Carolina’s largest homegrown companies — a takeover target. SCANA was bought by Virginia power giant Dominion Energy in 2019. The new owner lowered SCE&G customers' nuclear-bloated power bills — while still planning to charge customers $2.3 billion more for the project — and renamed the utility Dominion Energy South Carolina.

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Through a class-action lawsuit settled by Dominion, ratepayers will be refunded up to $146 million, some of which was sent to customers in checks last fall. But that's a pittance of what they will pay for V.C. Summer.

SCE&G’s customers and investors have long wondered when the people in charge would be held accountable.

Byrne, along with former CEOs Kevin Marsh and Jimmy Addison, have been widely criticized for allegedly hiding vital information about the project’s flaws from the public, state utility regulators and the corporation’s investors.

For years, the massive nuclear project was marred by incomplete schedules and designs, supply chain problems, construction setbacks and mismanagement. Those problems led to huge delays and skyrocketing costs, factors that threatened the possibility it could ever be completed.

But the problems that plagued construction were hidden from public view for years.

That was until the reactors were cancelled and journalists, attorneys, lawmakers, regulators and law enforcement officials began to review internal emails, audits and other documents from the project. 

The trove of information included an audit by Bechtel Corp., one of the world’s largest construction and engineering firms, that detailed serious problems at the site and called into question the project’s future.

Yet in regulatory hearings, press conferences and investor calls, Byrne and other company leaders provided rosy updates about the project’s progress and improvements that often contradicted the fears they discussed internally. 

In a voicemail obtained by The Post and Courier after the project’s collapse, SCANA’s top accountant on the V.C. Summer project accused Byrne, Marsh and Addison of propping up the project in order to cash in on their executive bonuses.

“They have broken every friggin’ law that you can break,” Carlette Walker said in a voice message to an employee at Santee Cooper, SCE&G’s minority partner on the V.C. Summer venture.

In February, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission accused Marsh, Byrne and their former company of fraud in an 87-page civil lawsuit that strongly hinted at possible criminal charges. Prosecutors on Monday asked a judge to halt that lawsuit until Byrne’s criminal case is over.

Marsh and Byrne retired from the company in 2018. Addison, the former chief financial officer, stayed on as CEO until the company’s sale to Dominion in 2019.

Dominion "continues to cooperate fully with state and federal authorities in the ongoing investigation," company spokesman Ryan Frazier said Monday.

 

Reach Avery Wilks at 803-374-3115. Follow him on Twitter at @AveryGWilks.

Projects reporter

Avery G. Wilks is an investigative reporter based in Columbia. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the S.C. Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and is a 2015 graduate of the University of South Carolina’s Honors College.

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