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Kevin Marsh, the former CEO of SCANA, reportedly underestimated the overall cost of the utility's failed nuclear project in 2015, according to newly released testimony. Grace Beahm/Staff

COLUMBIA — SCANA's current and former executives misled utility regulators about the forecasted cost of its South Carolina nuclear project more than two years before the reactors were abandoned, according to newly released testimony. 

Kevin Marsh, the company's former CEO, made a decision in 2015 to tell the state's Public Service Commission the reactors would cost more than half a billion dollars less than what SCANA's own accountants predicted the final price tag to be. 

In doing so, SCANA was able to convince the state's seven utility commissioners to increase its overall nuclear budget at a key moment, stringing the troubled project along until it collapsed last summer.

The allegation that SCANA lied to the utility commission was leveled by Carlette Walker, a former SCANA employee and top accountant on the project who accused the company's leaders of propping up the project to cash in on their executive bonuses. 

Walker has become a key witness in the ongoing lawsuits and regulatory hearings surrounding the $9 billion failure. She testified under oath earlier this year about the project, but SCANA fought to keep key parts of her testimony private in recent months. 

That ended Thursday, as the state's public service commissioners began a weeks-long hearing to decide who pays for the failed nuclear project. The regulators need to decide whether the utility or its roughly 720,000 electric customers pay for the failed project in the coming decades.

Walker's statements build upon a growing mountain of evidence that SCANA hid problems with the nuclear project, while painting a rosier picture for the public, regulators and Wall Street investors. 

The choice that SCANA's executives faced in 2015 was stark.

SCANA's own accountants said its share of the nuclear budget would increase by more than $1 billion by the time it was finished.

But Westinghouse, the primary contractor at V.C. Summer, told them it would only increase by another $695 million. 

According to Walker, Marsh made the decision to believe Westinghouse, which SCANA and its project partner Santee Cooper criticized for years behind the scenes. "Kevin made the decision that he was going to go with the low number," Walker said. 

The difference between the two forecasted price tags largely came down to how long it would take the ironworkers, engineers and laborers to complete the project. The longer it took, the more it would cost. 

At the time, records show roughly one-half of 1 percent of the project was being completed every month. SCANA's accountants based their analysis roughly on that pace of construction. But Westinghouse's forecasted budget assumed that pace would drastically improve. 

"It was just math," Walker said. 

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SCANA says it was completely open with utility regulators about the need for the pace of construction to improve. And it points out that Walker personally vouched for the number provided by Westinghouse in front of the state utility regulators in late 2015.

But in her testimony, Walker says SCANA's top three executives pressured her into lying to the commission, and she said Marsh personally pushed her to take a "special medical leave" after she raised questions about the forecasted price. 

"I was stressed to the max because they were all over me. I was getting reprimanded for everything I did," said Walker, whose husband was also in the hospital at the time.

Earlier that year, Walker aired similar concerns in an email to a friend at work.

"I don't want to go to prison over this stupid job," Walker wrote in an email in February 2015. "I know I wouldn't get any backing if it came down to someone making me one of the fall guy(s)."

Walker and her team of accountants aren't the only ones who raised questions about the forecasted price and schedule of the project. Westinghouse officials, too, recognized the project was unlikely to finish on time or on budget with the slow pace of construction. 

Brian McIntyre, who oversaw licensing for Westinghouse throughout most of the project, said SCANA's construction leaders raised the same points in monthly meetings at V.C. Summer. “It was a statement of the obvious,” McIntyre told The Post and Courier earlier this year. 

It's now up to the seven utility regulators to decide if SCANA intentionally misled them.

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