COLUMBIA — Several state lawmakers called on South Carolina's utility commissioners to resign Tuesday after they collectively failed to disclose almost $140,000 in flights and other perks paid by utility associations and other groups.
The push to clear out the S.C. Public Service Commission came two days after The Post and Courier published an investigation that highlighted more than 80 paid trips the commissioners took to utility conferences and other functions since 2011.
The Post and Courier's investigation — Golf, Beaches and Power — showed how those same regulators often socialized with the very utility officials they are meant to hold in check.
Five of those regulators remain on the commission as it decides whether 700,000 electric customers or the investor-owned utility SCANA should pay for two abandoned nuclear reactors at V.C. Summer station. Some conferences that commissioners attended were put on by the Edison Electric Institute, which is funded by SCANA along with other investor-owned electric utilities.
"The bottom line is they all should resign, and if they don't, they need to be replaced as soon as we go back into session," said Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, a Charleston Democrat who sponsored legislation that would ban gifts to the state's utility regulators.
"I just don't think the public can have confidence that this group can make the right decision at this point," he added.
"I think what they have done is given up any ability to appear impartial. The best thing they could do at this point is make way for new commissioners," said Rep. Kirkman Finlay, a Columbia Republican who has become a critic of the commission.
The state utility commissioners aren't well-known, but they are charged with the important task of determining how much South Carolinians pay each month for water, electricity and natural gas. The regulators were also in charge of overseeing the $9 billion nuclear project before it was cancelled in July.
Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, said the commissioners' failure to disclose their industry-funded trips calls into question more than their decision-making on V.C. Summer.
"The conflict of interest doesn't just apply to SCANA and ruling on the nuclear issue," said McCoy, who led a special legislative committee that investigated the nuclear cancellation.
For instance, several commissioners attended conferences by the National Association of Water Companies, a group made up of the largest for-profit water utilities in the country. They accepted more than $12,000 in travel to the group's annual conferences in Denver, New York, St. Louis and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where the water utilities sponsored kayaking trips, zoo visits and harbor tours.
The same commissioners are tasked with deciding whether Carolina Water Service, which belongs to the National Association of Water Companies, may increase its customers monthly water and sewer rates.
It won't matter if the commissioners resign, McCoy said, since the House already has a bill pending that would replace the entire commission. Beyond that, McCoy doesn't believe the commission should be left to decide whether SCANA electric customers continue to pay $37 million a month for two useless nuclear reactors.
"I think the Legislature needs to be the one to act on this and act on it quickly," he said of the nuclear expenses.
House Speaker Jay Lucas agreed with McCoy. The Republican from Hartsville said the commissioners decisions have "cast a cloud of uncertainty" over the commission.
"Consumer confidence must be restored with the PSC after the V.C. Summer collapse," Lucas said in a statement. "The House is committed to expanding transparency at the PSC and stands ready to vote on a series of proposals that immediately remove the current commissioners and institute regulatory reforms to increase accountability.”
Commissioners said state lawmakers encouraged them to attend the utility events, which often are filled with lobbyists, lawyers and highly-paid executives. Swain Whitfield, the current chairman of the utility commission, said lawyers with the South Carolina Ethics Commission previously told the regulators they didn't have to disclose the industry-funded conference trips on their annual financial reports.
"It's not some type of pleasure gig or anything," Whitfield said of the various conferences he attended. "I was merely there to make my presentation and to present the South Carolina perspective."
But state lawmakers, who are subject to the same ethics laws, asked whether the commissioners got that legal advice in writing. Whitfield said he did not receive a written opinion.
Gov. Henry McMaster's office said the trips should have been reported to "maintain the public's confidence."
Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said he wasn't ready to call for the commissioners' resignation. But the meals, hotel rooms and plane tickets absolutely should have been disclosed, he said. If the law actually doesn't require the regulators to report the industry-funded trips, the law needs to be changed, Massey said.
The Senate's majority leader said he wants the utility commissioners to learn more about the issues they could face, but if the commissioners get that education at utility conferences, it needs to be publicly reported.
"The real problem is that there was no disclosure," Massey said.