SC utility execs under investigation asked few questions

JEFFREY COLLINS
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Public Utility Sale

Executives of Santee Cooper listen as the utility makes its presentation before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. Four executives did not show up because their lawyers advised them not to testify. (AP Photo / Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Two current executives of South Carolina's state owned utility who remain part of a criminal investigation into the failure to finish two nuclear plants in the state showed up for a meeting Wednesday after senators demanded their appearance.

Santee Cooper Senior Vice President of Nuclear Energy Michael Crosby and Marion Cherry, the utility's on-site manager for the nuclear project that cost $9 billion and never generated power, reluctantly took an oath to tell the truth at a Senate Finance Committee meeting and then were asked almost no questions.

The committee is deciding Santee Cooper's future, deciding between bids to let the utility reform itself, sell Santee Cooper to NextEra Energy of Florida or have it managed by Dominion Energy of Virginia.

Senators wanted the men and two former executives to be at a similar meeting Tuesday, but their lawyers advised them not to show up because of criminal investigations into Santee Cooper and its majority partner in the nuclear project, the former SCANA Corp. Senate leadership threatened subpoenas if they didn't show up.

Through lunch Wednesday, senators asked the men only one question about how much Santee Cooper has spent to protect equipment, material and supplies at the construction site for the reactors north of Columbia since it was abandoned in July 2017. Prompted by Santee Cooper CEO Mark Bonsall, Cherry quietly answered from his seat three rows back that it was $20 million.

The equipment is in limbo as Santee Cooper and the main contractor on the failed nuclear project, Westinghouse Electric Co., have sued each other. Westinghouse declared bankruptcy about three months before the reactors were abandoned.

Cherry and Crosby were mentioned one other time Wednesday by Santee Cooper Board Chairman Dan Ray, who pointed out the men were only a handful of Santee Cooper employees at the abandoned construction site compared to more than 600 SCANA employees.

“They’re good people. And in my opinion, they did their job. But as a litigator mentioned to me last week, they were at the kiddie table," Ray said.

While the initial refusal of the executives to testify created a small stir, senators spent almost all of Wednesday's meeting questioning for a second day other Santee Cooper leaders about their bid to stay a public utility.

Through their questions, senators found out Santee Cooper has about $1 billion in potential liabilities with several lawsuits, including the one over the equipment. They also found out the utility has paid $1.7 million for lawyers for its executives for both civil lawsuits and the ongoing criminal investigation, which has not yielded charges.

Santee Cooper officials also said they have shed seven vice presidents in less than three years, but still have 14 vice presidents on the payroll.

The Senate Finance Committee has spent hours meeting each day the Legislature has been in session the past two weeks. They have to make a decision on Santee Cooper's future and pass it on to the full Senate by mid-March.

The House Ways and Means Committee has a similar assignment and timetable and is holding marathon meetings this week, talking to NextEra and Dominion officials. The Santee Cooper administrators will move across the Statehouse grounds Thursday for their own meeting in the House's office building.

Santee Cooper is $4 billion in debt mostly because of its debt on the unfinished nuclear reactors. NextEra's bid of more than $9 billion bid would pay off that debt and offer $940 million in relief on rates for customers who use Santee Cooper's power.

But NextEra's offer would cut Santee Cooper's 1,700-employee workforce by more than 40% and the company could not guarantee rates over the next 20 years below the rates that Santee Cooper proposed.

In its management proposal, Dominion wouldn't charge a fee to run Santee Cooper. But that bid had fewer details, including no plans on how to handle Santee Cooper's debt, no names of the executives they would put in place at the South Carolina utility and no details on how much electric rates will increase.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP