Jimmy Addison

Jimmy Addison, SCANA's former chief financial officer and current CEO, testified in front of the state's utility regulators about the failed V.C. Summer nuclear reactors. Provided/SCETV Broadcast

COLUMBIA — SCANA’s chief executive on Thursday denied pressuring an accountant to lie about the company’s flagging nuclear project, offering the utility’s most forceful denial yet of allegations that threaten to stick the company with a multi-billion dollar tab.

“I have absolutely not,” said CEO Jimmy Addison when he was asked point-blank during a regulatory hearing if he forced an employee to mislead regulators.

Addison took the stand in the hearing that will decide who should pay for two $9 billion abandoned reactors at V.C. Summer station: the utility or its roughly 720,000 customers.

He's the first executive to testify for SCANA, the Cayce-based company that owns South Carolina Electric & Gas.

Addison faced a barrage of questions about SCANA's handling of the abandoned nuclear project. Attorneys pressed him about why the utility company paid a former chief executive nearly $2 million in consulting fees but can't show what work he did.

They asked him whether the utility misled regulators about the health of the project. They harangued him about the $9.7 million he stands to collect if Virginia-based Dominion Energy takes over SCANA and he's fired. They grilled him over an audit of the project that highlighted serious problems more than two years before it failed.

Most importantly, they pushed him to answer whether he or two other former executives pressured SCANA employees to lie to the state's utility regulators about the estimated cost of the multi-billion dollar project. 

In 2015, a team of SCANA employees calculated the project would cost more than $500 million over estimates from its contractor, Westinghouse, documents show. But instead of telling utility regulators about the discrepancy, SCANA gave them the lower price tag.

In sworn testimony, Carlette Walker, a former high-ranking accountant on the project, has accused Addison, former CEO Kevin Marsh and the company's former operations chief, Steve Byrne, of pushing her to lie about the anticipated cost. Walker is expected to testify later in the hearing.

SCANA has said Walker herself attested to the lower cost of the project in 2015 in her testimony to regulators on the S.C. Public Service Commission.

But Walker has since told lawyers that SCANA's leaders forced her to present that testimony. She also accused the executives of stringing along the project to prop up the company's earnings and collect bonuses, according to a voicemail she left for a colleague in 2016.

Bob Guild, an attorney for the environmental groups Friends of the Earth and Sierra Club, asked Addison whether anyone in SCANA's team pushed Walker to commit perjury. Addison adamantly denied that he forced Walker to lie to the state's utility regulators, but he didn't directly answer whether other executives did.

Addison went on to say he wishes SCANA had shared the higher cost estimates. But he said the company's executives trusted the work of Westinghouse's staff more than their own employees. What's more, he said, only a few people at SCANA didn't believe in Westinghouse's numbers.

The Office of Regulatory Staff — the state's utility watchdog — pushed back by revealing SCANA employees' internal emails. They included searing comments on Westinghouse's schedule and the costs it had predicted.

"This schedule is a joke," SCANA employee Bernie Hydrick wrote in 2014, saying that the schedule could be easily manipulated by the contractors. "Someone should be fired for thinking this would be acceptable to us."

Earlier this year, the Office of Regulatory Staff asked SCANA for a list of people who helped determine that Westinghouse's schedule was "logical and appropriate." The company gave Hydrick's name

Addison was SCANA's finance chief throughout the project, putting him in the company's inner circle as work on the reactors began — and as it faltered. He became CEO this year after Marsh and Byrne stepped down amid the project's fallout.

Neither Marsh or Byrne have spoken publicly since leaving the company, but they, too, could be called to testify later this month. 

As Addison took the stand Thursday, he apologized for the $9 billion failure but again blamed the nuclear project's cancellation on Westinghouse and the project's co-owner, Santee Cooper, which pulled out of the project first. 

"The blame is understandable, but it won't resolve the situation," Addison added later. 

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

The attorneys facing off against SCANA took issue with the suggestion that the company's leaders should be absolved of their responsibility for managing the project and its contractors. 

"Are you aware that some parties in this case think that blame is a pretty important thing to figure out?" asked Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. 

"I am," Addison responded.

Addison was also peppered with questions about a 2015 audit by Bechtel Corp., one of the largest construction and engineering companies in the world. That audit laid out a litany of problems with the project, including SCANA's oversight, the reactors' designs and the projected construction schedule. 

That report was never provided to utility regulators. Even this year, SCANA has fought to keep the damning report from being used in court or in the ongoing regulatory hearing.

On Thursday, Addison said he never read the damning report from Bechtel, but he said he wished the audit had been disclosed to the commission and the public in 2015.

Even so, company records suggest Addison was personally involved in deciding not to disclose Bechtel's work at the construction site in 2015. 

Addison's thinking at the time was sketched out in emails among SCANA's attorneys. The company's top lawyer back then wrote that executives were in "complete agreement that no disclosure should be made," and he wrote that Addison "didn’t want to volunteer anything about it" in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The report didn't come into public view for years, a decision that is now being investigated by the SEC and the FBI.

Thad Moore contributed to this report.

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