South Carolina's state utility paid bonuses to private execs

South Carolina's state owned utility paid $9 million in performance bonuses to executives of a private utility for two nuclear reactors that were never finished, according to the public utility and emails turned over to state and federal investigators.

SCANA Corp. even billed taxpayer-supported Santee Cooper $3.2 million for bonuses in August, a month after the utilities abandoned 10 years of construction and planning for the reactors, according to the emails released by Gov. Henry McMaster's office on Wednesday.

Santee Cooper refused to pay, utility spokeswoman Mollie Gore said.

"I will not approve this invoice," Senior Vice President for Nuclear Energy Michael Crosby wrote in one email. "I may get over-ridden ... but if SCANA cares to push this ... CFOs & CEOs will need to get involved."

Crosby also suggested letting SCANA CEO Jimmy Addison know his company was still seeking performance bonuses after the reactors were abandoned, and suggested that other executives "man-up and ask if he wants to push this," according to the emails.

Some Santee Cooper executives did not want to pay any of the bonuses, but former CEO Lonnie Cooper decided the public utility should pay 45 percent of the bonuses because it owned 45 percent of the reactors, Gore said.

McMaster obtained the emails and invoices from Santee Cooper after asking the public utility to send his office any documents they were sharing with state and federal investigators, McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said.

The invoices indicated at least $5 million of bonuses paid to SCANA executives, but Gore said Santee Cooper's records showed the public utility paid $8.9 million to the executives at the private firm.

The governor also sent the emails to legislative leaders, asking senators to confirm his nominee to run the Santee Cooper board as soon as possible.

"Santee Cooper's customers, including individuals and the electric cooperatives of our state, deserve to know how their hard earned money is being spent by the utility, and now, we know that much of it was going to pay SCANA executives' bonuses related to the failed reactors," Symmes said in a statement.

Santee Cooper is $8 billion in debt after the abandoning of the reactors.

SCANA didn't respond to an email seeking comment.

Also on Wednesday, South Carolina lawmakers made a last-minute push to pass several bills to give ratepayers temporary relief and pass regulations to prevent anything like this from happening again.

A committee of House members and senators could not reach a compromise on how much to cut a charge that customers of South Carolina Electric & Gas — a SCANA subsidiary — pay for the abandoned reactors.

The House wants to cut the entire 18 percent charge until the Public Service Commission can reset rates at the end of the year. The Senate wants a 13 percent cut. They said they would continue talks later.

The Senate tentatively approved repealing the Base Load Review Act which allowed utilities to charge ratepayers for the nuclear plants before they ever generated a watt of power. Nine different rate increases were passed during the 10 years of planning and construction on the reactors.

"This is an important reform to give public assurance we're not going to have to deal with this again," said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey of Edgefield.

The bill will face a final key vote Thursday on the last official day of the 2018 session, but the House and Senate may take up other bills about the failed reactors in special sessions in May and June.

One of those bills could be a proposal that passed a Senate subcommittee Wednesday requiring SCANA and Santee Cooper to preserve equipment for the failed reactors still at the V.C. Summer site in Fairfield County. Supporters said that equipment can be sold and the proceeds given back to customers.

The utilities will never get back the $1.6 billion value of the equipment, but at least ratepayers would be responsible for less debt, said Democratic Sen. Mike Fanning, whose district includes the failed reactors.

"If we've got $9.5 billion (in debt) out there and some senators saying we're going to get that rate reduction relief and the only way to do it is get those assets back," Fanning said.

Also on Wednesday, the Senate passed a bill allowing the consumer advocate at the state Department of Consumer Affairs to work on behalf of ratepayers before regulators.