SCE&G hearing

Attorneys with S.C. Electric & Gas pushed to stop two state agencies from sharing documents with the public during a hearing in York County on Wednesday. The utility's lawyers want reassurances that evidence in an ongoing case over its failed V.C. Summer nuclear project won't be shared under the state's Freedom of Information Act. 

YORK — South Carolina Electric & Gas wants to stop two state agencies from releasing information to the public about its abandoned nuclear reactors, ratcheting up the company's campaign to restrict evidence about what went wrong with the $9 billion project.

SCE&G's attorneys asked Circuit Judge John Hayes on Wednesday to ensure that records from several ongoing lawsuits against the utility can't be shared by the state Attorney General's office or the state's utility watchdog agency.

Those offices are subject to the state's Freedom of Information Act, which calls for open records.

Both state agencies requested to join the lawsuits, which were filed by SCE&G electricity users last year.

Before that happens, SCE&G wants assurances the documents, depositions and other evidence in the case won't make their way into newspapers or the public as the company fends off public anger and an ongoing federal investigation into its effort to expand the V.C. Summer nuclear power plant.

"These issues should not be decided in the press," said Jon Chally, one of SCE&G's attorneys from the Atlanta-based law firm King and Spalding.

But lawyers for the state agencies said they couldn't give up their responsibility to follow the state's open records law. And they said the power company, which has more than 700,000 customers across the state, was simply trying to ward off embarrassment in a closely watched case.

SCE&G owned just over half of the $9 billion project and currently charges ratepayers $37 million a month for the unfinished power plant.

That adds up to about 18 percent of their bills, or about $27 a month for the typical home.

"They want to prevent and delay embarrassing documents from coming to light," said Wallace Lightsey, the attorney representing the Office of Regulatory Staff, the watchdog agency.

SCE&G's request is the utility's latest legal maneuver to slow or halt the release of information about the abandoned reactors. The company has already complained to the state's utility regulators that a pair of environmental groups — Friends of Earth and the Sierra Club — released records to The Post and Courier.

SCE&G asked attorneys for those groups to sign confidentiality agreements before giving them more internal documents.

The ongoing fight over whether the evidence is released to the public comes nearly a year after SCE&G and its partner, the state-owned utility Santee Cooper, pulled the plug on the project last summer.

Evidence in the lawsuit is already starting to accumulate.

Lawyers representing the electricity customers have already deposed Carlette Walker, a former SCE&G employee who worked closely with the utility's top executives. In a voicemail obtained by The Post and Courier, Walker accused SCE&G's parent company of mismanaging the project in order to boost profits and cash in on executive bonuses.

She left the voicemail as a private warning to her counterparts at Santee Cooper before she left her job in 2016. The message was played in the York County court Wednesday.

"She tells Santee Cooper that SCANA's executives are committing crimes and lying to the public," said Daniel Haltiwanger, an attorney representing SCE&G customers. "Sometimes the most honest witnesses are the people who don't know you're listening to them talk."

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