YORK, SC — An attorney for South Carolina’s Office of Regulatory Staff blasted SCE&G on Wednesday for insisting on secrecy in turning over its internal records for an ill-fated $9 billion nuclear reactor project.
The publicly traded investor-owned utility doesn’t deserve much confidentiality after spending so much money on “an expensive white elephant,” Regulatory Staff attorney Wallace Lightsey told Circuit Court Judge John Hayes, referring to the failed V.C. Summer nuclear power project in Fairfield County that ratepayers still are paying for in their monthly bills.
Regulatory Staff is the state agency that represents the interests of ratepayers, including SCE&G customers, in utility cases.
“I fail to see how documents relating to such a derelict project could have any legitimate claim to confidentiality,” Lightsey told Hayes, who presided over a daylong hearing in the historic York County Courthouse.
Instead, the internal SCE&G records should be subject to South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act, Lightsey said,
Lightsey spoke after one of SCE&G’s lawyers, Jon Chally of Atlanta, urged Hayes to keep confidential the utility’s internal records.
Chally told the judge that Regulatory Staff, which now has many of the SCE&G records, doesn’t have the legal authority to make decisions about which utility documents should be released to the public. That decision should be left up to the courts or the S.C. Public Service Commission, he said.
Chally also cited the state’s Freedom of Information Act, referring to provisions in the open records law that allow trade secrets and other sensitive data to be kept secret from the public.
“It’s not in the ORS’s ability … to determine independently whether something is subject to the Freedom of Information Act,” Chally said.
The Lightsey-Chally exchange prompted Emory Smith, a top lawyer in the S.C. attorney general’s office, to urge Judge Hayes not to issue any confidentiality orders in the case.
“We don’t believe any order can override the Freedom of Information Act,” Smith said.
Attorneys Terry Richardson and Dan Haltiwanger, who are suing SCE&G on behalf of its customers, said the utility’s past actions showed it would hide material that made it look bad.
As an example, Haltiwanger played a tape-recorded phone call in which former SCE&G executive Carlette Walker, who oversaw spending at the nuclear construction site, said five top executives of SCANA, SCE&G’s parent company, “have broken every friggin’ law in the book.” Any criminal investigation would “eat those five bad guys alive,” she said.
Walker has left SCE&G and is a potential witness in an ongoing FBI investigation into the nuclear plant debacle.
Richardson reminded Hayes that SCE&G commissioned consultants from the Bechtel Corp. to look into problems at the nuclear plant site in 2015. But the utility then “whitewashed” that report, Richardson said. “These are the people we are supposed to trust?”
An SCE&G attorney, Emily Newton of Atlanta, disputed that characterization of SCE&G’s actions, telling Hayes, “We strongly dispute … allegations here today.”
More than 35 lawyers were on hand Wednesday to argue a range of issues, including whether lawsuits against Santee Cooper — now before Hayes — should be placed on hold. The state-owned utility, the junior partner in the V.C. Summer expansion project, has filed a motion with S.C. Supreme Court asking for it to take up lawsuits against it.
Last October, the Supreme Court assigned Hayes to preside over all state lawsuits stemming from the failed nuclear venture.
Hayes issued no immediate decisions on any of the issues before him Wednesday.
More than 20 lawsuits have been filed in state and federal courts. A federal grand jury investigation also is ongoing. Hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line, including whether 2.7 million ratepayers for SCE&G and Santee Cooper will have to continue to pay for the failed nuclear plants in their monthly bills.