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In early 2016, one of SCANA's top accountants on the V.C. Summer nuclear project accused the company's executives of mismanaging the construction project and propping up the utility's stock price in order to cash in on bonuses. File/Provided/High Flyer

COLUMBIA — In early 2016, long before South Carolina’s nuclear boondoggle burst into public view, a high-ranking SCANA official left a blistering, five-minute voicemail with a key employee at Santee Cooper.

"I know the truth now, and I don't want you and Santee to get screwed any more. ..."

"They are mismanaging that project, and it's at y'all's expense. ..."

"They're all on the frigging take. ..."

The whistleblower's warnings were not heeded at the time and Santee Cooper's board of directors voted to continue working with SCANA on the struggling project for another year, costing ratepayers millions in charges for the reactors.

The board, however, didn't learn about the audio recording until this year, months after the project was abandoned under the weight of construction delays and cost overruns.

Santee Cooper says its top executives knew about the message but didn't share the warning with the board.

The woman behind the voicemail has now emerged as a key witness in a high-stakes effort to determine what went wrong with the V.C. Summer nuclear project and who should pay for the $9 billion failure.

Carlette Walker, SCANA's former vice president of finance for nuclear construction, is set to be deposed as part of five ratepayer lawsuits filed against the Cayce utility in the wake of the Fairfield County project's cancellation last summer. She has yet to testify under oath.

In the voicemail obtained by The Post and Courier, Walker accused SCANA's leaders of stringing the nuclear project along in order to boost the company's profits and lock down their executive bonuses.

She leveled those accusations more than a year before the colossal energy project was halted and South Carolina was saddled with one of the biggest financial crises in its history.

"They are all of the same cloth," Walker said of SCANA's executive team in the voicemail. "They all think they're the smartest guys in the room."

"They have broken every friggin' law that you can break. I could shut SCANA down today if I wanted to, but I'm not going to do that. I'm gonna continue to do the right thing."

Insider warning

Walker's message appears to bolster a case that lawmakers and trial attorneys have been building for months: that SCANA's executive team papered-over many of the project's problems in order to cash in on two of the first new nuclear reactors in the United States in three decades.

The lengthy voicemail offers, for the first time, a direct account of some of the concerns that existed within SCANA's own management as the company pushed forward with the troubled nuclear project that started in 2009.

For years, Walker headed SCANA's project finance team, overseeing the multi-million dollar payments the company made to its contractors. She was in close contact with SCANA's top echelon, internal emails show. During hearings in front of the state's utility regulators, she repeatedly testified about the project's budget and forecast.

She was also rewarded internally for her work. She won pay raises each of her last five years on the job, eventually earning more than $565,000 in 2015 as she prepared to blow the whistle. SCANA disclosed details of her compensation when state lawmakers asked how much the project's top officers were paid.

Walker's voicemail was left with Marion Cherry, one of Santee Cooper's three on-site employees at V.C. Summer. Walker made the call before she quit in May 2016.

She implored Cherry: Don't let Santee Cooper sign any more budget increases for the project.

The project was already billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule when Walker made the call. But SCANA was preparing to push one last budget increase.

It was a deal that would lock in the reactors' price — after increasing the cost by roughly $1.9 billion. Santee Cooper voted to increase its budget by $1.1 billion. SCANA increased its budget by $831 million.

"You need to push back, and don't let them continue to mismanage that project. Just don't let 'em. Don't sign anything. Refuse to pay," Walker told Cherry.

"They are doing it because they want to make money, and they are propping up earnings to be able to make their bonuses. And it's going to be at your expense."

Existing concerns

SCANA spokesman Eric Boomhower said Walker raised several concerns before she left the company, mostly what he called "personnel issues." But one was a question about whether SCANA had done enough in 2015 to disclose problems with the construction schedule.

The company says Walker questioned whether executives made it clear enough that the reactors wouldn't be finished in time if workers didn't show "significant improvement." They would need to become far more productive to catch up with the schedule promised by the project's contractors.

Still, Boomhower says, Walker personally told state utility regulators in 2015 that the reactors could be finished in time. Regulators knew they needed a big turnaround, he said. And when SCANA and Santee Cooper locked in the project's cost the next year, he said, the utilities were no longer on the hook for the cost of delays.

Walker declined to discuss the voicemail with The Post and Courier, referring questions to her West Columbia attorney, Jake Moore Sr. Moore did not respond to several phone calls or questions sent via email.

Attorneys representing SCANA's executives — former chief executive Kevin Marsh, current CEO Jimmy Addison and former executive vice president Steve Byrne — also did not respond to several emails.

In the months that followed Walker's message, SCANA and Santee Cooper did agree to amend their contract with Westinghouse Electric, their primary contractor.

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Santee Cooper's board of directors voted in June 2016 to approve the fixed-price deal. SCANA opted in to the arrangement that May, and the state's utility regulators signed off in November.

Santee Cooper says it had made its concerns known in early 2016, around the time it received Walker's voicemail. Among other things, it sent SCANA a list of problems that spring, including issues with project management, according to spokeswoman Mollie Gore.

The list didn't specifically address Walker's concerns about SCANA using the project to boost profits.

'Driven by dollar signs'

In the meantime, the disconcerting voicemail didn't spread far, stowed away on Cherry's phone.

Barry Wynn, a Santee Cooper board member, said he hadn't heard about the voicemail when the board voted on the fixed-price contract in 2016. Neither had Bill Finn, the board's acting chairman.

"That's not anything I have any awareness of," Finn said. "It's completely new to me."

Santee Cooper says the message was shared with its top executives who oversaw the project, including then-chief executive Lonnie Carter. Executives didn't specifically share it with the board but took it as "one piece of information among many," said Gore, the agency's spokeswoman.

Other concerns were raised around the same time, including a litany laid out by a then-secret, highly critical audit conducted by the Bechtel Corp. That report was delivered in February 2016.

Less than a year after the board's vote, Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy, sunk under the weight of the project's mounting costs.

Santee Cooper pulled the plug last July after estimating that the reactors would cost even more than expected — doubling its initial projections. SCANA backed out later that day, saying it couldn't press on by itself. It has been fighting for months to continue charging customers for the steel, concrete and man-hours it poured into the project.

State lawmakers who investigated the nuclear cancellation believe the voicemail is only a small piece of the evidence that will emerge out of the raft of lawsuits and criminal investigations surrounding V.C. Summer. They are hoping to stop future customer payments for the unfinished reactors. 

"It shows what we've always thought. There were executives driven by dollar signs. That is what it shows. That's what we thought from day one, and now we are getting evidence to prove it,” said Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston. "It's beyond misconduct. This is criminal activity."

Walker, for her part, voluntarily retired from SCANA after more than three decades with the company. 

"They all but stripped me of my life," Walker said in the voicemail. "If I never heard the word SCANA again, it would be great."

She may not get that wish: Walker is expected to answer lawyers' questions about the project this spring.

Andy Shain contributed to this report

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

Thad Moore is a reporter on The Post and Courier’s Watchdog and Public Service team, a native of Columbia and a graduate of the University of South Carolina. His career at the newspaper started on the business desk in 2016.