S.C. legislative panel to consider PSC insiders for ‘do-over’ PSC election

August 8, 2018

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

An incumbent state Public Service Commission member, a past commissioner and an ex-PSC attorney are among six candidates who have applied for a PSC seat in a “do-over” election imposed by lawmakers in May.

The former PSC attorney, who dropped out of a May race for another PSC seat, recently moved so she could run for the open seat, a state government spokesman confirmed this week to The Nerve. State law requires no minimum time to live in a particular district to be a PSC candidate.

The process to fill the $107,822 seat has dragged on for more than a year, as The Nerve has reported.

The election for the District 2 seat is particularly important now as the seven-member commission is expected to decide by the end of this year whether to allow South Carolina Electric & Gas to continue charging customers to pay down debt for the failed $9 billion V.C. Summer nuclear project, and whether to approve a proposed $14.6 billion merger between SCANA Corp., the parent company of SCE&G, and Virginia-based Dominion Energy.

A federal judge on Monday ruled that SCE&G ratepayers can receive a temporary 15 percent reduction in their electric bills. Last week, SCANA shareholders voted to sell their company to Dominion.

Lawmakers in 2007 quietly approved a law, called the Base Load Review Act, which allowed the PSC to impose the SCE&G rate hikes for the V.C. Summer project. SCE&G customers collectively have paid more than $2 billion under the law for the Fairfield County project, which was abandoned a little over a year ago.

PSC candidates are screened and nominated for election in the General Assembly by a legislatively controlled committee known as the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC), which largely controls the regulation of utilities in South Carolina.

Under state law, PURC can nominate no more than three candidates for a PSC seat.

On the last day of regular session in May and in a move not seen in recent PSC elections, lawmakers in an unrecorded voice vote approved a motion to reject the entire slate of three nominated candidates for the four-year District 2 seat. That allowed incumbent Elliott Elam Jr. of Lexington, who was one of the nominees, to continue serving until another election is held.

Asked why he introduced the motion to reject the entire candidate slate, Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, told The Nerve then that Elam, who was first elected in 2014, had recently voted to “give SCE&G yet another rate increase,” though that vote wasn’t specifically tied to the V.C. Summer project.

Elam, an attorney and former consumer advocate at the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs, is running again for the congressional District 2 seat, which covers all of Lexington, Aiken and Barnwell counties; and parts of Richland and Orangeburg counties.

John McAllister of Columbia, who was one of three nominated candidates on the rejected slate, earlier told The Nerve he believes lawmakers who supported Elam pushed to strike the entire slate because they feared “there was a danger Elam wouldn’t be elected.”

Elam didn’t respond Tuesday to an email from The Nerve seeking comment and didn’t reply to earlier messages.

Besides Elam, the other five candidates who applied for the District 2 seat, according to an Aug. 1 PURC release, are:

*James “Buddy” Atkins of Columbia, a former state water official who served on the PSC from 2000-2004. Efforts this week by The Nerve to reach him were unsuccessful.

*Florence Belser of Columbia, who worked with the PSC from 1993 to 2003, first as a staff attorney and later as executive assistant to the commission. Since 2004, she has been the general counsel with the state Office of Regulatory Staff, which signed off on the SCE&G rate hikes for the V.C. Summer project.

ORS spokesman Ron Aiken confirmed this week that Belser, who dropped out of the race in May for the District 6 PSC seat after being nominated by PURC, recently moved from Summerton in Clarendon County, noting, “She moved here (Columbia) when she decided to run for the in-town district (District 2 seat).”

Aiken initially said Belser’s $113,110 job has “nothing to do with working on SCE&G rate cases at all,” though upon further questioning by The Nerve, he said she “worked on the original certification in 2008 to build the (nuclear) plants and appeals of that … but hasn’t been involved since.” He said she currently “handles the agency’s FOIA requests and assists on other cases occasionally.”

Belser did not respond to an email seeking comment. PURC attorney Heather Anderson told The Nerve on Monday state law does not “require a candidate to reside in a district for a prescribed period of time prior to submitting an application.”

*Patricia “Patty” Carson, currently the mayor of the town of North in Orangeburg County. In an email Tuesday to The Nerve, Carson said she would resign as mayor if elected to the PSC to comply with the state constitutional ban on dual office holding. She said she was “encouraged by fellow professionals to seek this opportunity” because of “my engineering discipline and background in government operations and finance.”

*Bruce Cole of Forest Acres, founder and managing director of Palmetto Realty Advisors. He was on the candidate slate that lawmakers rejected in May.

*Brenton D. Jeffcoat of Lexington, a bond attorney who told The Nerve on Tuesday he is making his first try for an elected position.

The Nerve asked Anderson, the PURC attorney, for applications for all six candidates who applied by the Aug. 1 deadline. She denied the request, citing a state law that requires joint legislative committees to keep all records obtained by the committees “strictly confidential” unless “presented under oath” at public hearings.

The Nerve in May revealed that the six-legislator, 10-member PURC has no written criteria for making its final candidate choices. Candidates must have a bachelor’s degree and experience in at least one of eight broad categories, though state law allows PURC members to qualify candidates even if they don’t meet the experience requirement, as long as three-quarters of the committee agree to do so.

The committee, chaired by Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, is tentatively scheduled to hold public screening hearings on Sept. 5. An election in the General Assembly could occur later that month with the expected return of lawmakers to Columbia, though no specific dates have been set.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve. 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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