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Legal costs for current and former Santee Cooper officials stands at $1.7 million

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Wampee board meeting (copy)

Santee Cooper's board of trustees meets at the utility's Wampee Conference Center in Pinopolis. Thad Moore/Staff

The legal bills for Santee Cooper's employees, executives and board members now stands at $1.7 million as several major lawsuits over the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project continue to drag on. 

Accounting records obtained by The Post and Courier show Santee Cooper has covered the attorneys fees for eight current and former officials with the Moncks Corner-based utility.

The legal costs stretch from late 2017 — the year the troubled nuclear project was canceled — until last month when the newspaper requested the records. 

The legal invoices don't include money spent on attorneys to represent the state-run utility itself, which was the minority owner of the unfinished nuclear project in Fairfield County.

For perspective, the $1.7 million is nearly as much cash as Santee Cooper initially budgeted for legal expenses in 2018. The money could ultimately come from Santee Cooper's ratepayers — depending on the outcome of several lawsuits. 

It's unclear what legal work the attorneys performed for each expense that is listed, as the underlying invoices weren't provided.

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Mollie Gore, Santee Cooper's spokeswoman, said the costs were tied to civil lawsuits Santee Cooper is facing and an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which has called Santee Cooper officials as witnesses. 

Companies covering the legal representation for its staff and executives is common in business when those people are sued for operating in their official capacity. 

The cancellation of the nuclear reactors spiraled into dozens of lawsuits, which sought to uncover what Santee Cooper and its project partner SCANA Corp. knew about the troubled construction effort before the project was abandoned in July 2017.  

One of those lawsuits alleged Santee Cooper did not disclose problems with the nuclear reactors to buyers of so-called mini-bonds that the utility issued.

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Another state lawsuit has pitted Santee Cooper against South Carolina's 20 electric cooperatives — the utility's largest customers. The co-ops don't believe their customers should pay for the failed project. That litigation is deep into the discovery process with Santee Cooper's current and former leaders being deposed. 

The highest legal bills were for the employees and executives who were most intimately involved at V.C. Summer. 

Lonnie Carter, Santee Cooper's former CEO who oversaw the failed nuclear project from its start to its cancellation, has racked up $596,671 in legal expenses with the Columbia law firm Harris & Gasser.  

Michael Crosby, Santee Cooper's vice president of nuclear energy, has received $442,383 worth of legal representation from the Joe Griffith Law Firm in Charleston. 

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Marion Cherry, who was Santee Cooper's on site representative at V.C. Summer, has piled up a $399,067 legal bill with Beattie B. Ashmore in Greenville. 

Records obtained by The Post and Courier last year show all three of those men were aware of problems with the project long before construction ceased.

Carter complained to Westinghouse, the lead contractor at the site, as far back as 2013. Crosby griped about SCANA's oversight of Westinghouse for years. And Cherry was the recipient of a voicemail from a high-ranking SCANA accountant who said company's executives were stringing the project along in order to cash in on their bonuses. 

Santee Cooper hopes it will be reimbursed for the personal legal costs, which are likely to continue far into the future. The state-run utility is currently suing several of its insurance companies in state court to try to force them to cover the ballooning pricetag.  

It's yet to be seen whether the insurance carriers will fork over that money. For now, Santee Cooper will continue to carry the costs on its own. 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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