S.C. lawmakers likely to fill PSC seat with one of two insiders

January 23, 2019

Investigative Reports

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Update: On 2/6/19, the Legislature in a joint session voted 99-1 to elect former longtime PSC attorney Florence Belser to the congressional District 2 PSC seat after incumbent Elliott Elam withdrew from the race. The only lawmaker who voted against Belser was Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Anderson.

By RICK BRUNDRETT

After nearly a year and a half of delays, state lawmakers are poised to fill a $107,822 Public Service Commission seat with either an incumbent who voted for electric rate hikes for the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project, or a former longtime commission staffer.

Meanwhile, two rejected candidates for the congressional District 2 seat, which covers all of Lexington, Aiken and Barnwell counties, and parts of Richland and Orangeburg counties, are questioning why a legislatively controlled committee, called the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC), voted to find them “not qualified.”

In interviews Tuesday with The Nerve, Patty Carson, currently the mayor of the town of North in Orangeburg County, and Bruce Cole of Forest Acres in Richland County, president of a Columbia think tank and a PSC nominee last year, said no PURC members or staff gave them any specific reasons for rejecting them.

“It’s not transparent, and it should be,” said Cole, who, according to documents he filed with PURC, earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University, a master’s degree in accounting from Northeastern University, a master of business administration degree in finance from Stanford University, and a doctoral degree in planning from Clemson University. “You’re representing the people. Everything you do should be transparent.”

Carson, who, according to her PURC documents, holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering management from the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy, provided The Nerve with emails from her to Heather Anderson, the lawyer for PURC, asking why she was found not qualified.

“The (PURC) members did not provide specific reasons concerning each candidate’s finding of qualified or not qualified. The vote was unanimous regarding the finding of not qualified,” Anderson said in an email to Carson, noting that “there is no additional information I can provide.”

Carson told The Nerve she also had concerns how she was treated during her Jan 14. screening hearing.

“All these older gentlemen are just leaning back in their chairs with their arms crossed,” she said. “They didn’t look like they were even interested.”

The Nerve in 2014 reported about another female candidate who was questioned during her screening hearing by Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee, and the PURC vice-chairman, about whether she had discussed her candidacy with her children. There currently are no women on the PSC.

The Nerve this morning requested comment from Sandifer and Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, who is the PURC chairman, but did not receive a response by publication of this story. Anderson on Tuesday did not provided specifics to The Nerve about why PURC found Carson and Cole not qualified.

The two nominated candidates, both of whom are attorneys, are Elliott Elam of Lexington, the PSC vice-chairman who was first elected to the commission in May 2014; and Florence Belser of Columbia, who worked for the PSC from 1993 to 2003 and since 2004 has been with the state Office of Regulatory Staff, which signed off on South Carolina Electric & Gas rate hikes over the years for the $9 billion V.C. Summer project.

PSC records show that from September 2014 to October 2016, Elam voted to approve three rate hikes for SCE&G customers for the construction of two nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer site in Fairfield County, which was abandoned by SCE&G and partner Santee Cooper on July 31, 2017. Lawmakers in 2007 quietly approved a law, known as the Base Load Review Act, which allowed PSC to raise rates for the project.

Elam, a former consumer advocate at the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs, earlier declined The Nerve’s requests for comment on his PSC candidacy, while Belser did not respond to requests seeking comment. An ORS spokesman in August confirmed that Belser, who makes $113,110 in her current job, recently had moved from Summerton in Clarendon County to Columbia to run for the District 2 seat.

The Nerve in May revealed that PURC, which largely controls the regulation of utilities in South Carolina, has no written criteria for making its final choices. State law makes it difficult for the public to participate in PSC candidate screening hearings and other types of proceedings controlled by the Legislature, as The Nerve reported in September.

PURC by law is made up of 10 members, six of whom are lawmakers, though the latest nomination report lists nine members. There currently is a vacant seat designated for a member of the general public, according to Secretary of State records.

Under state law, PURC, which nominates candidates to the seven-member PSC, can nominate no more than three candidates for a seat, which is filled by the General Assembly. An election in the Legislature for the District 2 seat is set for Feb. 6.

The convoluted election process for the four-year seat has dragged on since Aug. 25, 2017, when PURC in a one-sentence written statement said, without giving a reason, that the screening of candidates for three open PSC seats, including the District 2 seat, had been “suspended until further notice,” as The Nerve reported at the time.

On the last day of regular session in May last year, lawmakers in an unrecorded voice vote effectively approved a “do-over” election for the seat, rejecting the entire slate of three nominated candidates, which included Cole and Elam.

The move allowed Elam to stay on the commission months after his term expired, giving him the opportunity to vote in December and last week on matters related to the V.C. Summer project, including Virginia-based Dominion Energy’s takeover of Cayce-based SCANA Corp., the parent company of SCE&G.

Not qualified?

Carson and Cole were among the six most-recent candidates who applied for the District 2 seat. James “Buddy” Atkins of Columbia, a former state water official who served on the PSC from 2000-2004, was found qualified but not nominated. Brenton Jeffcoat of Lexington, a bond attorney, withdrew before the Jan. 14 screening hearings, according to Anderson.

Under state law, candidates are legally qualified if they have at least a bachelor’s degree and a “background of substantial duration and expertise” in at least one of eight broad categories: energy; telecommunications; consumer protection and advocacy; water and wastewater; finance, economics and statistics; accounting; engineering; or law.

State law, however, allows PURC members to qualify candidates even if they don’t have experience in any of eight categories, as long as three-quarters of the committee agree to do so and provide “written justification of their decision.”

In her screening hearing last week, Carson, who since 2015 has been the mayor of North, a town of about 850, said she is responsible for “all aspects of the town,” including managing the wastewater treatment plant, police force and public works department, according to the hearing transcript. She previously served as an industrial engineer, marketing engineer, financial analyst and corporate project manager in the private sector, according to records she filed with PURC,

PURC’s final nomination report indicated that Carson had the lowest test score among the candidates. She told The Nerve when she asked Anderson, the PURC lawyer, for a copy of her two-hour written test so she could see which questions she missed, Anderson replied, “Oh, absolutely not.”

Carson said she was “very frank and honest” in a written statement she submitted to PURC, noting, “We need to restore the public’s confidence in the Public Service Commission.”

Cole is founder and president of the Richard T. Greener Institute for Social Policy Research, a Columbia think tank which, according to Cole’s LinkedIn account, is “focused on elimination of economic and health disparities in South Carolina’s communities of color through applied empowerment economics.” He also is manager of Palmetto Realty Advisors in Columbia and has served in a variety of other academic and corporate positions throughout his career, according to records he filed with PURC.

“I believe I am absolutely the best candidate for the job,” he told The Nerve.

Asked why he thought PURC found him unqualified for the upcoming election, Cole replied, “I don’t know,” though he quickly added it was “probably the same reason” why lawmakers last year rejected the entire slate of nominated candidates, including him.

“They just threw the whole slate out, and that was unprecedented,” he said. “They didn’t explain, and even when (state Rep. Jerry) Govan asked for an explanation, they refused to give an explanation.”

In the end, Cole said he believes it would be “helpful to consider who the winners and losers are in this scenario – not just in regard to who the candidates are, but with regard to their constituents.”

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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