You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
top story

SC agency nixes utility regulator’s plans for ratepayer-funded travel blitz

  • Updated
John A. Carlos II (copy)

John "Butch" Howard, who has served as a utility regulator in South Carolina since 2004, is planning a series of ratepayer-funded trips to conferences in his final months as a member of the Public Service Commission. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

A longtime state utility regulator planned to treat himself to a smorgasbord of cross-country travel to hobnob with industry representatives on the ratepayers' dime in his final months in office.

But the Public Service Commission canceled John "Butch" Howard's travel voucher Friday after questions from The Post and Courier caused the agency to revamp its policies for commissioner excursions, according to a spokesman. He will now likely have to pay his own way if he chooses to proceed with the trips.

In October, Howard withdrew his application for another four-year term on the commission. He did so amid clear signs that state lawmakers were not planning to reelect him or other incumbents who approved nine rate hikes on South Carolina Electric & Gas customers for the now-canceled V.C. Summer nuclear plant expansion.

Since withdrawing, the 16-year PSC veteran has attended two industry conferences, in New York City and Washington, D.C.

As of Friday, the lame-duck commissioner is scheduled to travel to five more events before he leaves office June 30, carving out 26 days from his calendar for trips to Florida, New Mexico and California before a conference in Louisville, Ky., during his last month in office. The trips, which include stays at a boutique hotel and a beachfront resort, will cost thousands of dollars, even after utility industry groups reimburse some of the expenses.

According to the PSC calendar, Howard is the only commissioner scheduled to go on those upcoming trips.

Critics questioned what value S.C. ratepayers would reap from Howard’s taking what they described as a victory lap in his last few months in office. Some said those educational conferences are rife with opportunities for utility commissioners to be wined and dined by utilities they are supposed to impartially regulate.

“Someone who is about to go off the commission does not need further education on the issues,” said Lynn Teague, with the S.C. League of Women Voters, a group that has intervened in PSC proceedings. “It’s not at all clear why (ratepayers) should fund his continued travel.”

Earlier this month, PSC spokesman Rob Bockman said Howard — a Moncks Corner resident who typically brings his wife along for the trips — is attending the conferences in part “due to previously-agreed-upon commitments” stemming from his leadership roles with three groups organizing the gatherings.

In a statement previously forwarded by Bockman, Howard wrote, “I’m still on the Commission and I still have to do my job until June 30th.”

But in a subsequent email sent Friday, Bockman said The Post and Courier's questions about Howard's sojourns made the PSC realize it needed to rework its policies for commissioner travel. The new rules being drafted will:

  • Bar commissioners from taking ratepayer-funded trips during their last six months in office. This would keep Howard and two other lame-duck commissioners from traveling this year at ratepayers' expense. 
  • Review payment options for supporting commissioner travel.
  • Require commission staff to post details of planned trips that outline the educational value of the conferences attended. 

"Our overall goal is continued accountability, both internal and to the people of South Carolina," Bockman said. 

A regular on the circuit

First elected in 2004, Howard has become a regular on the conference circuit. Last year, he attended 13 industry gatherings in nine states and the nation’s capital. No other S.C. commissioner attended more than seven. Commissioner Tom Ervin, elected in July 2018, attended just one.

Howard trekked to Gulf Shores, Ala., in June for the Southeastern Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners' annual conference, held at a beachfront Hilton Hotel with sweeping views of the Gulf of Mexico.

He was out of the office five days in November to attend the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners' annual educational conference at the Grand Hyatt hotel in San Antonio, located on the River Walk downtown just minutes from the Alamo.

Howard's trips cost about $12,700 in travel, hotel and registration fees, though $4,700 of that was reimbursed by industry groups sponsoring the events, according to PSC records. The PSC pays for those trips from fees provided by S.C. utilities. The utilities pass those fees along to ratepayers.

Howard and his six colleagues on the PSC all make at least $132,071 a year. Prior to joining the commission, Howard, a Berkeley High School and University of South Carolina graduate, worked as an official with the Boy Scouts of America.

South Carolina’s PSC has been under fire since the July 2017 collapse of the V.C. Summer project exposed flaws in the state’s oversight of its electric utilities. The $9 billion project, located in rural Fairfield County, went belly up after almost a decade of planning and construction, leaving ratepayers on the hook for two nuclear reactors that never generated a watt of electricity. 

We're starting a weekly newsletter about the business stories that are shaping Charleston and South Carolina. Get ahead with us - it's free.


Over the previous five years, utilities and special interest groups had paid nearly $140,000 in conference expenses, meals and other perks for South Carolina’s commissioners, The Post and Courier reported in 2017.

Like judges, PSC members are barred from discussing cases with any parties involved outside of court. But out-of-state conferences provide an opportunity for the utility industry to build relationships with commissioners, observers say.

Bob Guild, an environmental attorney who has argued cases before the PSC, spoke at a utility conference a few years ago in Charleston. He said he was astounded to see utility companies and trade groups set up booths throughout the hotel hallways and sponsor after-hours boat rides and plantation tours.

“What’s going on is that these have become a source of off-the-record entertainment and perks of service,” Guild said. “(Howard is) not going to deprive himself of that vehicle. I doubt seriously that there is any benefit to the ratepayers of South Carolina.”

Scott Elliott, a former PSC member who now argues before the commission, said the conferences can create problems when commissioners find themselves meeting and greeting with officials from utilities they regulate.

“When you get to know these representatives on a personal basis — typically, not always — you develop a bond of friendship and then it becomes difficult ... to question the credibility of what they’re telling you,” Elliott said. “You become too close and you give them the benefit of the doubt when they’re not entitled to any. It’s really a human failure.”

But Elliott said the conferences he attended as a commissioner 20 years ago were educational, full of classes and panels on industry developments and trends.

“Would discretion suggest you’d want to limit it if you were no longer seeking reappointment? Sure,” Elliott said. “But I don’t know what he’s doing. There may be value to his attending.”

More travel ahead

Earlier this month, Howard and two other S.C. commissioners attended the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ four-day winter policy summit at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C.

Howard has a slate of trips scheduled ahead of him.

In late March, he is slated to take four days to attend the Electric Power Research Institute’s advisory council meeting at the Alfond Inn in Winter Park, Fla., a boutique venue that boasts "amenities to rival even the most luxurious hotels."

In early April, he has set aside six days for an advisory council meeting for New Mexico State University’s Center for Public Utilities. The event is held at the Eldorado Hotel and Spa in the heart of downtown, where attendees can get a discount rate of $196 a night.

Bockman, the PSC spokesman, noted Howard’s commitments to those organizations. Howard is one of 32 members of EPRI’s advisory council and part of the 93-member advisory council for the NMSU’s Center for Public Utilities.

Howard is to be in Charleston in late April for the National Association of Water Companies’ Water Policy Forum, and in Coronado, Calif., in May as a faculty member for NARUC’s Western Rate School. The California event will be held at the Coronado Island Marriott and Spa, a self-described idyllic retreat with sweeping bayside views of the San Diego skyline and easy beach access. Rooms there can top $340 a night, but attendees get a discount rate of $219 a night plus taxes.

NARUC pays for Howard's travel to their events since he is on the group's board, a spokeswoman said.

Howard is scheduled to attend the Southeastern Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ conference in Kentucky from May 30-June 3.

A spokeswoman for NARUC said its conferences are focused on education and attract a range of attendees, including federal officials, environmental groups, researchers, consumer advocates and reporters. It isn’t just commissioners and the utilities they regulate, spokeswoman Regina Davis wrote in an email.

“Utility consumers in every state deserve to have commissioners staffed by individuals who are most knowledgeable — regulating in a vacuum is not consistent with serving the public interest,” Davis wrote.

Still, the chairman of the legislative panel that oversees the PSC was unaware of Howard’s trips.

“That’ll be something we’ll have to evaluate going forward,” said state Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla. “In the past, when they’re commissioners, we wanted to encourage them to go get training and education and be on top of issues. We’ve encouraged them to be involved. But without an outgoing commissioner, I think this is a different circumstance.”

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

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

Breaking News

Columbia Breaking News

Greenville Breaking News

Myrtle Beach Breaking News

Aiken Breaking News