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Series on public corruption in South Carolina focuses on gas authorities

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Day 1: Chamber travels to NC cities to survey development success (copy)

Asheville's scenic Grove Park Inn, where Chester gas authority board members convened for a three-day retreat that cost ratepayers nearly $34,000. File/Journal Scene

The Charleston Post and Courier has obtained spending reports and credit card statements indicating that board members of the state’s five gas authorities spend tens of thousands of dollars on trips, meals and sight-seeing excursions as part of conference attendance and annual training every year. A response to the paper’s recent “Uncovered” story from the Chester County Natural Gas Authority, though, says the training received at these conferences is not only essential, it ultimately serves a great benefit to its ratepayers and saves them money in the long run.

The Post and Courier has launched a year-long series covering public corruption in South Carolina, particularly that found in smaller towns, somewhat isolated rural areas and so-called “news deserts” that are either underserved or not served at all by any form of watchdog media. The Post and Courier is partnering with smaller newspapers (including the News & Reporter) as part of this effort. The look into gas authorities included obtaining thousands of pages of credit card statements and receipts to examine the spending of gas authority board members, particularly on trips to annual conferences of gas associations.

In 2019, gas authority board members from Lancaster and York attended the American Public Gas Association summer conference in Stowe, Vt., racking up expenses in excess of $130,000. Two Chester County Natural Gas Authority (CCNGA) executives were in attendance (along with their spouses), but the local board was not. Per the Post and Courier’s findings, the Chester board, “didn’t like the rugged venue” of Vermont’s Green Mountains. Instead, they attended a three-day retreat at The Omni Grove Park Inn a few months later. Located in Asheville in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Grove Park is a five-star facility that features a subterranean spa, a golf course and other amenities.

Check in for the contingent from Chester (which included board members and their spouses along with at least two company executives) was at 4 p.m. on Oct. 6, 2019. That evening, the group dined at Vue 1913, a AAA four-diamond restaurant located inside Grove Park Inn, with the total bill exceeding $3,300. A detailed receipt of what was ordered was apparently not available.

The itinerary the next day featured a continental breakfast from 8 a.m. until 9 a.m., followed by two hours of meetings (which included a 15-minute break for refreshments). After that, at least a portion of the party played golf on the Grove Park course (with the total bill hitting $910.63). The group dined later that day at the Red Stag Grill, which bills itself as an, “upscale, rustic, chic steakhouse in the Grand Bohemian Hotel” running up a total bill of $1,616.

On Tuesday, Oct. 8, the group again had an hour-long continental breakfast beginning at 8 a.m., followed by about two-and-a-half hours of meetings. The meeting agendas lack much in the way of detail or specificity, simply saying things like, “Jason Stewart (CCNGA)” and “Gary Alexander (Dominion Energy)” with nothing to denote what was discussed. That day featured another outing, this one being a group tour of the palatial Biltmore Estates (which cost a total of $736), followed by dinner at Grove Park’s Sunset Terrace restaurant (total bill of $3,209.36).

The following day featured one hour of meetings, followed by checkout. The board members drove to and from Asheville and were reimbursed for mileage. The bill for the rooms topped $22,000 and the three group meals accounted for in credit card statements carried a cumulative tab of over $8,000. With travel, golf an $1,100 bill to “Accents of Asheville” (a “destination management company” that specializes in meeting planning) and a tour of Biltmore Estates all included, the three-day trip, which included a total of five-and-a-half hours of meetings, carried a total cost of at least $34,000.

There were other outings reflected in the Post and Courier’s findings. In July of 2018, staff and board members from the gas authorities in Chester, Lancaster and York flew to Portland, Ore. for the annual American Public Gas Association conference. With many having their spouses in tow, the total bill (footed by rate-payers) run up by the three-county contingent was more than $160,000. Lesser expenses included nearly $500 worth of alcohol for a “Christmas get-together” for the Chester board. The CCNGA employee handbook notes that employees “are expected to limit expenses to reasonable amounts” in terms of travel, lodging, meals and other expenses related to business trips.

On Monday, CCNGA General Manager Jason Stewart sent a statement in regards to the Post and Courier’s piece and a list of questions sent by the News & Reporter.

Stewart said it is incorrect to label travel to conferences sponsored by the American Public Gas Association (APGA) as junkets or vacations, since they offer essential education, training and relationship building. APGA, he said, represents the interests of public gas before Congress, federal agencies and other “energy-related stakeholders” by developing and presenting regulatory and legislative policies that further the goals of its members. Their conferences offer “meetings, seminars and workshops with a specific goal to improve the safety, reliability and operational efficiency with which, and regulatory environment in which, public gas systems operate.”

“To best serve CCNGA and, by extension, its larger communities, its board must remain up to date and thoroughly educated with all that entails…which is why it is vital for the board to remain involved with and be informed by APGA,” Stewart said.

In regards to the three-day conference in Asheville, he said the site was selected because “of the comfort of the speakers and guests and more importantly, the ability to drive, rather than fly, from Chester.” CCNGA issued an agenda in advance, posting it in the CCNGA office and online as required by law. Featured speakers included those from Patriot’s Energy Group, Dominion Energy, Shell, the Municipal Gas Authority of Georgia and others. He provided a lengthy and detailed list of topics discussed. The listed costs were not solely attributable to the board, with meals and activities of conference guests and speakers also included in the total. Those were provided, Stewart said, since all of the speakers waived any payment or fees for their time and efforts. It is also customary, he said, to allow board members to bring along their spouse.

“A number are somewhat older and, understandably, would hesitate to travel without familial support,” Stewart said. “Because the educational sessions require a not-small time commitment and because they are so valuable to the mission of CCNGA, it has been decided to cover the expenses of board members and a companion, usually a spouse…Indeed, many of the conference functions invite spousal participation, such as APGA-sponsored meals, seminars and receptions. Some of the events are specifically directed toward attendees’ spouses.”

The board members and their spouses have formed relationships with many experts in the field of natural gas and finance through conference attendance. Stewart believes “these connections have assisted with the development of key contracts and partnerships which have saved and will save…hundreds of millions of dollars.”

CCNGA board members are not paid, aside from a $35 per diem for each of the five meetings they attend each year. There is a budgeted line item for training and conference attendance.

There are five public gas authorities in the state, all of which date back to the middle of the last century. Chester, Lancaster and York have standalone authorities while Newberry and Clinton share one, as do Anderson and Pickens (Fort Hill). Each authority has a board of directors that is technically appointed by the governor, but it seems more accurate to say the governor simply approves recommendations made at the local level. In Chester’s case, the legislative delegation makes two appointments, the City of Chester makes two and the Town of Great Falls makes one. Board members serve six-year terms and are eligible for reappointment at the end of a term. They do not answer to state regulators in the way that privately-owned gas companies might. It does not appear the name of Chester’s board members actually appear on the CCNGA website. There is a list of meeting agendas dating back to 2019. Per that list, the board appears to have met five times in 2019, four times in 2020 and most recently met on February 4 of this year. However, while there are agendas, there do not appear to be minutes from any of the meetings posted that would indicate what actions the board has taken. However, Stewart said minutes are kept and are available for public inspection.

The trips and spending are not actually illegal. Members of special purpose districts don’t actually have to file statements of economic interest with the state.

CCNGA, established in 1954, built and moved into a new facility on Ballymena Road in 2018 that features 13,500 square feet of office space and a 15,000 square foot warehouse. It was built on land obtained from Chester County via a land swap, one that both sides deemed a “win-win.” CCNGA has frequently been cited as one of the county’s best partners in terms of economic development as well. Stewart provided a list of other local entities in which CCNGA invests and partners with, which includes the Penny Sales Tax Commission, Chester County Chamber of Commerce, public schools and other entities.

Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556. Follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.

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