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Ex-SCANA CEO pleads guilty to fraud in SC nuclear fiasco: 'I'm sorry it's come to this'

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Kevin Marsh, then-CEO of SCANA, walks past demonstrators outside a 2017 meeting of the S.C. Public Service Commission shortly after the company abandoned the V.C. Summer nuclear construction project. Marsh appeared in court for the first time to plead guilty to fraud charges and formally accept responsibility for his role in the failed decade-long expansion. Sean Rayford/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — Former SCANA Corp. Chief Executive Officer Kevin Marsh will spend at least two years in prison and pay back at least $5 million for defrauding electric ratepayers in South Carolina’s $9 billion nuclear power fiasco, according to a plea deal that was presented to a federal judge Feb. 24.

The 65-year-old Marsh appeared in court for the first time to plead guilty to fraud charges and formally accept responsibility for his role in the failed, decade-long expansion of SCANA’s V.C. Summer nuclear power plant in Fairfield County. Marsh had to surrender his passport at the courthouse but was released without having to post money for bond.

Once one of South Carolina’s top businessmen, Marsh has spent the past six months as a criminal informant and will continue to be a key witness for state and federal prosecutors who continue to probe the V.C. Summer project’s failure. He faces up to 10 years in prison if he does not fully cooperate with that investigation, according to the new terms of his plea deal.

"Justice has been served," U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Peter McCoy said after the hearing. "For years, institutions and individuals have abused the public trust with little to no accountability. This includes corporations that have increased profits at the expense of their customers. Oftentimes, it's assumed that these executives will avoid any oversight because of who they are and where they've worked."

Marsh's first day in court was a long one, a product of a three-year investigation by the FBI, U.S. Attorney's Office for South Carolina, State Law Enforcement Division and S.C. Attorney General's Office that brought both state and federal fraud charges against him.

He spent Wednesday morning atoning for his crimes in a federal courthouse in Columbia and the afternoon apologizing before a state judge in Spartanburg.

"I'm sorry it's come to this," Marsh told state judge Mark Hayes. "I stand responsible for my actions. I will fulfill my obligations under the agreement with the state to cooperate whenever and however I can and don't expect to create any problems for you or the court."

In both hearings, Marsh — clad in a gray suit and black face mask — listened quietly as prosecutors lay out the case against him.

They recounted how the sudden collapse of the project in July 2017, now considered the greatest business failure in state history, sent shockwaves through South Carolina’s legal, regulatory, political and business communities.

All told, SCANA and its minority partner on the ambitious venture, state-owned Santee Cooper, spent $9 billion before pulling the plug on the construction effort, which was supposed to usher in a new era of clean nuclear power in South Carolina.

The V.C. Summer expansion would have been the United States’ first successful nuclear construction project since the 1970s. SCANA hiked its rates nine times on its 753,000 electric customers to finance the project.

Now, ratepayers for both SCANA and Santee Cooper will spend decades paying off that debt on their power bills.

Marsh’s main crime while managing the project, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim May told federal Judge Mary Geiger Lewis, was failing to tell regulators and the public about the ongoing supply chain, design and construction problems that were dooming the expansion effort.

Instead, prosecutors asserted, Marsh and his colleagues at SCANA presented only rosy projections and assessments of the progress at the V.C. Summer construction site, even as lead contractor Westinghouse struggled to assemble the two new nuclear reactors.

Marsh and SCANA’s top executives knew by late 2016 that their project was doomed, destined to miss critical deadlines to have the reactors online, prosecutors asserted Wednesday.

At that point, SCANA executives needed only to raise their concerns to the state Public Service Commission, which sets utility rates in South Carolina, and begin an honest conversation about whether the project should continue.

In fact, a similar debate took place about the ongoing expansion of the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia after the V.C. Summer project collapsed. There, regulators decided to continue the construction effort rather than cancel it.

But Marsh never brought those concerns to regulators, Instead, May asserted, Marsh and his SCANA colleagues knowingly repeated Westinghouse's false reports of positive progress at the site.

"This isn't a typical fraud scheme," May said. "This isn't Bernie Madoff. This isn't a Ponzi scheme. This is more a crime related to violation of public trust."

Marsh pleaded guilty to charges of mail fraud and wire fraud and admitted, clearly and repeatedly, in response to questions from Judge Lewis, that he committed those crimes.

May said investigators determined Marsh should pay back $5 million to S.C. ratepayers after an "exhaustive process" that included studying Marsh's compensation from the company and determining how much of it, including performance-related bonuses, was directly tied to the nuclear project.

Prosecutors said Marsh has been cooperating with the investigation since fall 2020. The probe is "looking at additional actors" who may have committed crimes during the project's construction, May told Lewis.

"We are going to need his help," May said of Marsh.

Marsh, who now lives in Flat Rock, N.C., is the second SCANA executive to plead guilty to defrauding ratepayers. The company's former chief operating officer, Steve Byrne, pleaded guilty in a similar arrangement in July.

Now, prosecutors have both Marsh and Byrne at their disposal as witnesses as they continue their investigation. If Marsh fails to cooperate or "misbehaves while he's out, then all bets are off in terms of this plea agreement," said Creighton Waters, an attorney at the Attorney General's Office.

Marsh’s guilty plea comes at the close of Peter McCoy’s run as U.S. Attorney for South Carolina. The James Island Republican is resigning Feb. 28 after President Joe Biden’s administration asked almost all Donald Trump-appointed U.S. attorneys to step down by the end of the month.

As a state lawmaker in 2017, McCoy led the S.C. House’s investigation into the V.C. Summer project’s failure and questioned Marsh and other SCANA officials about their role.

"I am honored to have been U.S. attorney throughout this prosecution," McCoy said.

The V.C. Summer fiasco proved an existential threat for both SCANA and Santee Cooper.

Once a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Cayce, SCANA was ultimately sold to Virginia-based Dominion Energy. The company was later rebranded as Dominion Energy South Carolina. 

The General Assembly is currently debating whether to sell Santee Cooper to Florida-based NextEra Energy as a means of offloading the power-and-water utility's V.C. Summer debt.

After the morning hearing, as McCoy and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson held a press conference to discuss the guilty plea, Marsh and his attorneys exited the federal courthouse and attempted to walk past the gaggle of reporters and prosecutors near the front gate.

Tom Clements, an environmental activist who criticized the nuclear project even before its abandonment, noticed and shouted a question as the former SCANA executive walked past: "Mr. Marsh, are you going to apologize to the people of South Carolina for this nuclear nightmare?"

Marsh did not respond. He climbed into the passenger seat of a black truck that revved its engine and drove away.

Avery G. Wilks reported from Columbia and Conor Hughes from Spartanburg. Jamie Lovegrove contributed from Columbia.

 

Reach Avery Wilks at 803-374-3115. Follow him on Twitter at @AveryGWilks. Send tips to averywilks93@protonmail.com.

Projects reporter

Avery G. Wilks is an investigative reporter based in Columbia. The USC Honors College graduate was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year for his reporting on South Carolina's nuclear fiasco and abuses within the state's electric cooperatives.

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