COLUMBIA — With distrust building against state-owned utility Santee Cooper, South Carolina lawmakers on Thursday peppered two candidates for the state-run utility's board with questions about the agency's transparency.
Other targets were the cost of its abandoned nuclear project and its fractured relationship with the state's electric cooperatives.
A committee of state senators held the hearing to vet Gov. Henry McMaster's hand-picked choices for the two open board seats.
Charles Leaird, a former CEO of one of South Carolina's 20 electric cooperatives, received enough votes to be considered by the full Legislature for the position. But the panel's vote on Charlie Condon, the former South Carolina attorney general and McMaster's pick for the utility's chairman, was delayed due to lawmakers tight schedule on the last day of the legislative session.
Lawmakers can still approve the two candidates later this year when they return to Columbia to finish the state's budget in the coming weeks.
Still, the review process took on outsize importance as legislators, the public utility's current leaders and the state continue to come to grips with the $9 billion failure at V.C. Summer nuclear station, along with Santee Cooper's decision-making throughout the decade-long collapse.
Lawmakers on the panel asked Leaird and Condon how they plan to deal with the nearly $4 billion in bond debt Santee Cooper now shoulders due to its spending on the nuclear reactor project.
They questioned whether the candidates supported Santee Cooper hiring contract lobbyists in the Statehouse, an issue that blew up last month when McMaster uncovered emails suggesting the agency was trying to thwart his attempts to sell the 84-year-old public utility.
They directly asked the candidates whether they'd mislead lawmakers or withhold information from elected officials — a question prompted by news this week that Santee Cooper helped pay the executive bonuses of SCANA, its utility partner at V.C. Summer.
"Accountability; to me that is job one at this time," Condon said. "I do have questions about how decisions in the past were made."
While the panel allowed Laeird to be considered by the full Legislature, not all lawmakers want him on the Santee Cooper board.
Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, and several other Republicans on the committee questioned whether Laeird would be conflicted since he previously represented Santee Cooper's biggest customer — the state's electric cooperatives.
As a previous board member of Central Electric Power Cooperative, Leaird took part in the decision to extend the co-ops' contract with Santee Cooper in 2013, as the nuclear project showed signs of serious problems.
The issue is the state's electric cooperatives are now suing Santee Cooper to stop it from charging the co-op's 772,000 customers for the unfinished nuclear reactors — a battle that could endanger the finances of the state-run utility.
Campsen was told there is already concern within Santee Cooper that the board's legal discussions related to the lawsuit are being shared with the cooperative's leaders. As a result, Campsen opposed Leaird.
"I just don't think this is a proper thing to do," Campsen said. "It's not personal. As I've said before, it's structural."
Other lawmakers disagreed. Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, said he trusted Leaird to represent the public utility over the cooperatives interests.
"Whether you serve on the legislature, whether you serve on a board, there are conflicts at every single turn," McElveen said. "It's how you deal with conflicts, and whether you do the right thing."
State lawmakers return for the extended legislative session May 23.