COLUMBIA — The potential new chairman of Santee Cooper assured legislators Thursday he cannot and will not get involved in the debate over selling the state-owned utility. 

Though nominated by Gov. Henry McMaster, former state Attorney General Charlie Condon said his allegiance would be to the utility and its employees, not the governor.

McMaster is working to sell the utility, saying that's the only way to prevent its customers from paying for the failed nuclear power project that Santee Cooper co-owns with South Carolina Electric & Gas.

By state law, only the Legislature can decide whether to sell the Moncks Corner-based utility, which Condon said is crucial for economic development in rural South Carolina. 

"It really would be none of my business what y’all do," he told a panel of legislators and their appointees during his first confirmation hearing appearance.

"It’s up the General Assembly, period," Condon said. "The chairman’s job is to do the best he or she can do to lead the organization, period. There’s enough to do without looking for something else."

The panel advanced Condon's confirmation, with no opposition, to the full Public Utilities Review Committee, which will meet next week. The full Senate must confirm him.

McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said Condon is following the directive he's been given.

"The governor appointed someone he thought could lead the utility in a way that's open and transparent," Symmes said. 

Condon would replace Leighton Lord, who stepped down as board chairman last December amid a public spat with McMaster. The governor accused Lord of hiding critical information about the failed $9 billion project in Fairfield County and tried to fire him. But Lord, appointed chairman by then-Gov. Mark Sanford, denied the allegations and sued to keep his job. He resigned several weeks later.

McMaster also has accused Santee Cooper's board and leaders of using lobbyists to stop a sale in the Statehouse.

While the governor appoints Santee Cooper's board chairman, with legislative approval, state law limits the governor's ability to fire that person. 

Condon said one of his priorities would be recognizing the 1,700 employees whose morale has plummeted amid the public outcry over a project that they had no control over. 

SCE&G and Santee Cooper jointly abandoned two partially built reactors at V.C. Summer Nuclear Station last July. The project was already years behind schedule and billions over budget when its main contractor declared bankruptcy months earlier.

Condon said while Santee Cooper sunk billions into a worthless "hole in the ground that shouldn't be there," and the people who made those decisions should be held accountable, his job would be to strengthen the utility and assure its hard-working, front-line employees. 

He called Santee Cooper, a New Deal-era utility created to bring electricity to rural South Carolina, a "tremendous success story overall." 

Santee Cooper provides electricity to about 2 million customers throughout the state, mostly through 20 electric co-operatives, though it directly provides electricity to more than 176,000 customers in the Lowcountry. 

Mike Couick, chief executive of The Electric Cooperatives of S.C., said he was glad to hear Condon commit to transparency, employees and the utility's future.

"He understands there needs to be a healing," Couick said.

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Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.