Santee Cooper board chairman Leighton Lord is stepping down, just weeks after he sued Gov. Henry McMaster to keep his job at the helm of the state-owned power company.
Lord, a prominent Columbia attorney, briefly kept his job after a Richland County judge put the brakes on his removal.
But he ultimately succumbed to the pressure Friday, even as he continued to deny the allegations that led to his ouster.
McMaster fired Lord three weeks ago with a letter that accused him of hiding critical information about Santee Cooper’s failed nuclear project. The government-owned utility borrowed some $4 billion for the scuttled expansion of the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station, which it was building with South Carolina Electric & Gas.
McMaster said his decision was spurred, in part, by a November article in The Post and Courier. The newspaper found that critical information had been scrubbed from a scathing audit of the project, raising alarms about whether the nuclear reactors would quality for billions in tax incentives.
Lord said the governor’s office had access to those findings before they were made public because they were included in a massive cache of documents released to lawmakers and investigators probing the project’s demise.
The unfinished reactors cost $9 billion in all, and they’re now the target of a raft of lawsuits and investigations by state police, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for South Carolina, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
"I am confident everyone now understands that at no time did I, the Santee Cooper board or Santee Cooper staff withhold documents or information from your office," Lord wrote in his resignation letter. "Santee Cooper has nothing to hide, however we are always open to improving the process."
Lord couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Friday. Santee Cooper says the board's vice-chairman, William Finn of Mount Pleasant, will fill in until a permanent successor is confirmed. Finn has served on the board since 2006.
Finn and interim Santee Cooper CEO Jim Brogdon will open the new year by answering one of the most important questions the power company has had to make since construction was halted in July: Is the project done for good?
SCE&G asked federal regulators on Wednesday to cancel its license to operate a pair of new reactors in Fairfield County, a significant move intended to lock down a major tax write-off that will pay for part of the project.
Santee Cooper, however, doesn’t pay taxes because it’s a government agency. And it wasn’t ready to make that move, saying its one-time partner was making "unilateral" decisions to walk away from the plant — all "without the consent of Santee Cooper."
It’s now up to Santee Cooper to decide if it wants to hold onto the license, keep paying to maintain the unfinished reactors and pick up the legal risk that comes with them. In a letter to SCE&G, it said those were "significant economic and policy choices" that it wasn’t prepared to make.
It’s also not clear how much time Santee Cooper will have to decide. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission hasn’t determined when it will cancel the license.
"Since we just received the information from SCE&G, the NRC has just begun the review and has not set a timetable for that review," NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said in an email.
The scuffle between McMaster and Lord came at a pivotal moment in Santee Cooper’s history. The governor is pushing to sell Santee Cooper, a New Deal-era utility that was formed to bring electricity to rural South Carolina. The hope is that a sale would keep customers from paying for the nuclear debacle.
The governor’s office has said that incomplete information was an impediment to the sale process, which could impact Santee Cooper’s 170,000 customers in the Lowcountry and the Grand Strand, and the electric cooperatives it sells power to across the state.
"These are critical months for our state’s economic and financial future," McMaster said in a statement. "Without full and immediate disclosure of all the facts, the integrity of the decisions to be made is frustrated and the people suffer."
Lord has also accused the governor of playing politics. He is a longtime supporter of Catherine Templeton, who is challenging McMaster in next year’s Republican primary.
Earlier this month, Lord said he understands if his political allegiances make the governor uncomfortable, and offered to step down.
But he said he would only resign if the governor dropped the claims leveled against him, saying he feared it would set an example for lawmakers to control the utility’s board.
Lord is the latest official to step aside in the wake of the V.C. Summer project's demise. Longtime Santee Cooper chief executive Lonnie Carter retired this fall, and the top two executives at SCE&G's parent company will retire this weekend.
In his resignation letter, Lord said the decision to cancel the V.C. Summer nuclear project was "one of the hardest decisions" that Santee Cooper's 12-member board had to make in his tenure, but he still believes it was the right move.
In the tumultuous months since, Lord said he was proud that Santee Cooper had delayed a rate increase and passed a budget that will slash the utility's budget by $1 billion next year. It has also named Brogdon as interim chief executive.
"With a very capable interim CEO in place, a very capable board and a cost-cutting budget approved, now is the time for me to end my service to Santee Cooper," Lord said.