COLUMBIA — In a move to make sure Santee Cooper is on board with a possible sale, Gov. Henry McMaster nominated a close ally — former state Attorney General Charlie Condon — to become chairman of the state-run electric utility.
McMaster has questioned the motives of Santee Cooper's leadership since he started soliciting buyers for the Moncks Corner power provider after last summer's failure of a $9 billion nuclear plant expansion in Fairfield County.
He tried firing the previous chairman, Leighton Lord, who ended up resigning late last year after the utility was accused of hiding critical information about the reactor project.
This week, McMaster sent a letter to Santee Cooper leaders requesting documents and receipts about lobbyists after raising questions whether new powerful outside advocates were hired to stall a sale in the General Assembly.
Legislators must approve selling the 84-year-old utility that provides power to more than 900,000 customers.
While McMaster can't do much more than push for a sale, he can try to shape the leadership at Santee Cooper.
If approved by the state Public Utilities Review Committee and the state Senate, Condon will take over for acting chairman William Finn, chairman of a Charleston textile company who was promoted to lead Santee Cooper's board after Lord's departure.
Condon, a Mount Pleasant attorney, will fill Lord's unexpired term that ends in May. McMaster will reappoint him to a seven-year term for the post that pays $24,000 a year.
Condon, a former Charleston solicitor, was state attorney general from 1995 to 2003. He was succeeded by McMaster, a fellow Republican who also used the same political consultant, Richard Quinn. Quinn's firm has been a target of the ongoing Statehouse corruption probe and agreed to pay a fine for failing to register as a lobbyist.
Condon made campaigning headlines in the 1990s when he suggested executing several death-row inmates at once on an "electric sofa."
McMaster said Wednesday he is confident Condon "will usher in a new era of accountability at Santee Cooper that South Carolinians deserve."
Condon in a statement said the interests of customers was his top priority.
State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, a sale skeptic whose district includes Santee Cooper's headquarters, said he supports Condon as a "honest, hardworking broker."
But he questioned if McMaster knew what he was getting with his old friend known for fierce stances as attorney general on fighting abortion, keeping the Confederate flag at the Statehouse and preventing women from attending The Citadel.
“If the governor wanted someone to just tote his water, I don’t believe he would’ve chosen Charlie Condon," Grooms said. "Charlie Condon is no rubber stamp.”
Santee Cooper has one other vacant board seat at a crucial time for the utility.
The board is seeking a permanent replacement to chief executive Lonnie Carter, who retired soon after the state-owned utility and its partner, South Carolina Electric & Gas, abandoned two partially built reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in South Carolina's biggest-ever business failure.
James Brogdon, Santee Cooper's retired in-house lawyer, was named interim chief executive in October over McMaster's objections. The governor wanted then-state Ethics Commission Director Steve Hamm, who also had led the state's consumer watchdog agency.
The tussle for control over Santee Cooper pits the governor and other small-government advocates who think the state should not own a power utility versus legislators and community leaders who worry a new owner will raise rates and gut company staff. Santee Cooper employs more than 1,750 workers.
A pair of utilities have expressed serious interest in buying Santee Cooper: NextEra Energy of Florida and Pacolet Milliken of Greenville, with a price tag hovering around $10 billion.
New York-based LS Power reportedly is interested in managing Santee Cooper with an option to buy.
No timetable for formal offers has been announced, though a sales proposal could be sent to the General Assembly before the legislative session ends in May.