S.C. lawmakers continue tight grip on PSC elections

September 23, 2020

Investigative Reports

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Update: The Legislature on Sept. 23, 2020, elected four newcomers to the S.C. Public Service Commission: Carolyn “Carolee” Williams, District 1; Stephen “Mike” Caston, District 3; Headen Thomas, District 5; and Delton Powers, District 7.

By RICK BRUNDRETT

For many South Carolinians, the size of their utility bills ultimately rests with state lawmakers.

Not only do legislators elect the seven-member S.C. Public Service Commission, which, among other things, sets utility rates for investor-owned gas and electric utilities, but they also control the nomination of PSC candidates.

Those who want to be a PSC commissioner must have the support of the six-legislator, 10-member State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee, or PURC for short. PSC members currently earn a base annual salary of $132,071, according to the state salary database.

PSC members can find themselves out a job if they fall out of the PURC’s favor. Just ask Swain Whitfield, who joined the PSC in 2008 but will officially be off the commission if the Legislature holds a scheduled election today for his seat.

The PURC in January didn’t requalify Whitfield, a former PSC chairman who previously operated a transportation company.

I still would like to know why I was found not qualified,” Whitfield said in an email response this morning to The Nerve. “I have wrestled with why for months (most of 2020) going back into the winter when that happened around 8:30 p.m. on a cold January night.”

PURC’s nomination deliberations typically are done in secret.

The 170-member Legislature in a joint session today is scheduled to fill four of the seven PSC seats, including Whitfield’s. A total of 10 candidates, including an incumbent, are running for the open seats. By law, no more than three candidates can be nominated for a four-year seat.

Under state law, the makeup of the PURC is controlled by House speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry. The PURC is comprised of three House members, three Senate members and four members of the general public.

The PURC’s chairman and vice-chairman are state Sen. Thomas Alexander and Rep. Bill Sandifer, respectively, both Oconee County Republicans who head their respective chamber’s Labor, Commerce and Industry (LCI) Committee.

Alexander and Sandifer didn’t respond to written and verbal requests Tuesday for comment on today’s scheduled PSC elections.

As The Nerve has previously reported, the PURC exerts considerable control over the regulation of utilities in South Carolina. For example, only candidates found qualified and nominated by the PURC can be elected by the full Legislature.

Under state law, the PURC also:

  • Is supposed to annually review sitting PSC members, though as The Nerve revealed earlier this year, the committee violated state law in recent years by not giving the Legislature annual performance reviews of individual PSC members.
  • Qualifies governor-appointed candidates to the 12-member board overseeing state-owned Santee Cooper, which was a partner with then-South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G) in the failed $9 billion V.C. Summer nuclear construction project in Fairfield County.
  • Essentially hires and annually reviews the performance of the executive director of the state Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS), which over the years signed off on SCE&G rate increases approved by the PSC for the V.C. Summer project. The rate hikes were made possible by a 2007 law that legislators quietly passed.

V.C. Summer scapegoats?

Whether the PURC has been purging the PSC to deflect attention away from lawmakers’ own failings in the nuclear project debacle is a matter of debate. After today’s scheduled elections in the Legislature, only one PSC member – Comer “Randy” Randall – who was serving when the project was officially abandoned in July 2017 might remain on the commission.

The PURC in January, as The Nerve reported then, didn’t requalify PSC member Whitfield, though the committee didn’t publicly reveal at the time the reasons for its findings. The PURC also didn’t discuss its decision involving Whitfield, who was the commission chairman when the V.C. Summer projected ended, in a Sept. 1 nomination report published last week in the official state House Journal.

In an email response this morning, Whitfield, whose PSC District 5 covers all of Fairfield, Kershaw, Lee, Union, Lancaster, Chester, Cherokee, and York counties, and parts of three other counties, said the PURC “did not give me any reasons as to why I was found not qualified – not verbally or in writing or through any means,” noting he was found qualified in three previous screenings.

Whitfield said the PURC on Jan. 8 voted 4-3, with three members absent, to find him not qualified after going into a closed executive session. He said all four votes against him were House appointees.

I am uniquely qualified, and I have years of experience ruling on massive cases,” Whitfield said, adding that during his years on the commission, he received “extensive financial, economic, technical and legal training on very complex issues by some of the best experts in the country.”

The PURC also didn’t indicate in its nomination report why it didn’t qualify or nominate attorney Bonnie Loomis of Murrells Inlet, the South Carolina managing director of an energy-industry trade group called E4 Carolinas, and who formerly was the director of the South Carolina Clean Energy Business Alliance, and also worked for Duke Energy Corp., the state Department of Health and Human Services, and the S.C. Senate Majority Caucus.

As with Whitfield, Loomis’ written test score as part of her screening process was among the highest of all candidates discussed in the report.

Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve, Loomis said the PURC in January didn’t give her any reason why it found her not qualified to run for District Seat 7.

“I still believe I am qualified for the position,” she said, adding, “I feel I am more qualified than any of the three candidates who were nominated, based on my test score and background.”

State law requires candidates to have a “background of substantial duration and an expertise” in at least one of eight areas, including energy; telecommunications; consumer protection and advocacy; water and wastewater issues; finance, economics and statistics; accounting; engineering; or the law.

But the PURC can legally qualify candidates even if they have no background in any of the eight statutory areas as long as three-fourths of the committee agree to qualify them and provide ‘written justification of their decision.”

The Nerve in 2018 revealed that the PURC has no written criteria in making its final choices. Rep. David Mack, D-Charleston and a PURC member, acknowledged then that the final decision-making process of the panel is largely subjective.

PSC candidate records presented to the PURC during the nomination process generally are considered confidential under state law.

Long election road

As with other recent elections, the screening process to fill PSC district seats 1, 3, 5 and 7 has been long and convoluted. The latest nomination cycle began in August 2019; in January, a total of 17 candidates were screened, but for reasons it didn’t explain publicly then, the PURC qualified, though it didn’t nominate, six candidates.

Former S.C. House member Ted Vick of Pawleys Island, who applied for one of the seats, was found not qualified. Another ex-House member, Chip Limehouse of Charleston, withdrew from a separate race before his screening hearing.

Elections in the Legislature were tentatively set for Feb. 5, but lawmakers extended the application period until the end of February. The screening process was further delayed after the coronavirus outbreak in South Carolina.

The PURC in July screened 16 candidates and also received affidavits from other candidates found qualified in January. A total of 10 candidates were qualified and nominated after those screening hearings.

In contrast to state laws dealing with lawmakers’ selection of judges and college board members, the law dealing with the screening of PSC candidates doesn’t specifically require that nominations be made at least two weeks prior to the elections.

Following is the list of 10 nominated candidates for PSC seats 1, 3, 5 and 7, according to PURC records:

*Seat 1(Charleston, Berkeley, Beaufort, Dorchester, Colleton counties): John Dulude, William Sloger, Carolyn “Carolee” Williams;

*Seat 3 (all of Oconee, Pickens, Anderson, Abbeville, Laurens, Greenwood, McCormick, Edgefield, Saluda counties; parts of Newberry, Greenville counties): Stephen “Mike” Caston, Willie J. Morgan, Comer “Randy” Randall;

*Seat 5 (all of Cherokee, York, Union, Chester, Lancaster, Fairfield, Kershaw, Lee counties; parts of Spartanburg, Newberry, Sumter counties): Headen Thomas;

*Seat 7 (Chesterfield, Marlboro, Darlington, Dillon, Florence, Marion, Horry, Georgetown counties): Clint Elliott, Thomas “Tee” Miller, Delton Powers.

The PURC on Tuesday had a meeting scheduled to discuss “questions raised” concerning candidate Powers following the “issuance of the Review Committee’s report” on PSC candidates, according to the meeting agenda.

No details about the questions were provided on the agenda. Powers, a Bennettsville attorney, didn’t respond to a phone message Tuesday seeking comment. PURC attorney Heather Anderson acknowledged the meeting when contacted Tuesday but didn’t respond to follow-up questions seeking specifics.

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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