PURC legislative members took junkets to utility industry-sponsored events

February 19, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

From 2007 through 2016, five longtime legislative members of a panel that nominates candidates to the S.C. Public Service Commission each attended at least two out-of-state events sponsored by utility-industry trade groups, records show.

The total taxpayer cost of the trips by the five lawmakers who sit on the six-legislator, 10-member State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC), along with legislative staff who traveled, was more than $12,000 over the nine-year period, The Nerve’s review found.

The events were organized by the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), which on its website bills itself as being “dedicated to representing the state public service commissioners who regulate the utilities that provide essential services such as energy, telecommunications, power, water and transportation.”

The traveling legislators, according to state income-disclosure reports and records provided to The Nerve by the House and Senate chambers, included:

  • Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, who is the PURC chairman and also the Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee chairman;
  • Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, who is the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman;
  • Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg;
  • Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee, who is the PURC vice-chairman and the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee (LCI) chairman; and
  • Rep. Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg, who is the first vice-chairman of the House LCI.

Under state law, the PURC, the appointments to which are controlled by Rankin and House speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, nominates candidates to the seven-member PSC for election in the Legislature. The Nerve previously reported that an election tentatively set for this month was put on hold after the PURC failed to nominate any candidates seeking four open seats.

Besides nominating PSC candidates, the PURC exerts considerable control in other ways over the regulation of utilities in South Carolina. The PURC, for example, qualifies governor-appointed members of the Santee Cooper board of directors, and is supposed to submit annual job-performance evaluations of sitting PSC members to the Legislature, though that wasn’t done in recent years in violation of state law, as The Nerve revealed in January.

As The Nerve revealed earlier this month, NARUC records show that the sponsors of the organization’s recent annual conferences and other out-of-state meetings included the American Gas Association (AGA), Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) and the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC).

Representatives of Duke Energy and Dominion Energy sit on the AGA’s and NEI’s board of directors, while NAWC’s current members include the Blue Granite Water Company, according to those organizations’ websites. All three companies are regulated by the PSC.

The AGA and NEI, for example, were among sponsors of NARUC’S 2016 annual meeting in La Quinta, Calif., which Sandifer and Forrester attended, records show.

The Nerve’s earlier story this month revealed that from 2014 through 2018, four sitting PSC members – chairman Comer “Randy” Randall, John “Butch” Howard, Swain Whitfield and G. O’Neal Hamilton – each took multiple trips to NARUC events. Howard and Hamilton in recent years have been members of NARUC’s board of directors, records show.

The Nerve’s latest review found that from July 2007 through November 2016, Alexander, Forrester, Hutto, Rankin and Sandifer traveled to NARUC conferences in Austin, Texas; La Quinta, Calif.; New York; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; or St. Louis. Rankin took three trips, while the other four lawmakers each traveled twice over the period, records show.

Sandifer’s trip expenses for NARUC events in Austin in 2015 and La Quinta in 2016 were reimbursed by the S.C. House and PURC, respectively, according to his annual income-disclosure reports filed with the State Ethics Commission. He listed his $1,510 Texas trip and $1,988 California excursion as reimbursements for speaking at those conferences.

Those visits were not included in records released to The Nerve by the House Clerk’s Office. Neither Richard Pearce, staff attorney for House clerk Charles Reid, nor Senate clerk Jeff Gossett responded to The Nerve’s follow-up questions last week.

The Nerve on Tuesday sent written questions to all five traveling lawmakers asking them why they took their respective trips, and whether the events posed potential conflicts of interest for them given the ties to the utility industry.

None responded except Hutto, who in his email reply denied that his trips to Portland, Ore., in 2008 and St. Louis in 2011 posed any conflicts of interest. Hutto, a trial lawyer and a member of the Senate Ethics Committee, said he attended the events to “educate myself on issues.”

In The Nerve’s story earlier this month, a NARUC spokeswoman described the organization’s conferences as “educational”; and that “topic selections and panelists are developed in a manner that provides constructive, useful content without causing a conflict of interest.”

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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