S.C. Public Service Commission: Women Need Not Apply?

March 10, 2014

Investigative Reports

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No Girls AllowedNancy S. Campbell last year was hoping to land a $102,000-a-year seat on the S.C. Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in the Palmetto State.

But the veteran telecommunications analyst and Piedmont resident probably wasn’t expecting a certain line of questioning from Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee and vice chairman of a legislatively controlled screening panel called the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee, or PURC for short.

The committee nominates Public Service Commission (PSC) candidates for election by the S.C. General Assembly. The seven members of the PSC serve four-year terms, which are staggered.

The following exchange between Sandifer and Campbell are found in transcripts of Campbell’s Feb. 11, 2013, screening hearing. The Nerve last week reviewed transcripts of last year’s screening hearings for Campbell and other PSC candidates while researching the next round of hearings tentatively set for next month.

Sandifer: “You’re a mother of three underage children. How will their lives be impacted if you were elected to the Commission and required to attend hearings, sometimes three or four days a week in Columbia or elsewhere, as well as going to conferences all over the United States?”

Campbell: “I am blessed with a very supportive set of parents and a very supportive set of in-laws who really enjoy being with their grandchildren. They relish getting more involved.”

Sandifer: “I’m going back to my own experience when I started in politics. Have you discussed this with your children?”

Campbell: “Yes.”

Sandifer: “Are they endorsing what you’re doing?”

Campbell: “Yes. I haven’t described all the nature of the work, but the concept of going to Columbia today, they knew where I was. Yes. They’re delighted.”

Sandifer didn’t ask any of those questions of the nine male candidates or four other female candidates during the two-day hearing last year, The Nerve’s review found. The 10-member screening panel, eight of whom are men, including six lawmakers, nominated two women and seven men, three of whom were incumbents, for four seats in districts 1, 3, 5 and 7.

Campbell wasn’t among that group. The screening committee ruled that Campbell was unqualified, even though it had rated her as “outstanding” and nominated her when she first applied for the 3rd District seat in 2008, according to records reviewed by The Nerve.

The male-dominated General Assembly last year elected no women to the PSC, which has two female members who were elected earlier – Nikiya “Nikki” Hall, the commission’s vice chairman, and Elizabeth “Lib” Fleming. No women were elected in the 2008 election when Campbell first ran for a seat.

A newcomer, former Clinton Mayor Comer “Randy” Randall, was the only nominated candidate for the 3rd District seat in 2013 – the only election involving an unopposed newcomer since the Legislature overhauled the PSC in 2004, The Nerve’s review found.

The other three open seats last year were filled by male incumbents.

Six of the seven PSC members each currently receive an annual salary of $102,382, according to a state salary database. Commission Chairman Gordon “O’Neal” Hamilton, who was first elected in 2004 and re-elected last year, makes $104, 286 yearly.

‘Sex Discrimination’

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Campbell declined to discuss specifics of last year’s screening hearing, saying only, “I felt it was inappropriate that I was asked questions other people were not asked.”

Longtime Columbia labor law and employment attorney Malissa Burnette was more frank when contacted by The Nerve.

“The line of questioning was clearly, in my mind, based on sex discrimination and not related to her ability or qualifications to do that job,” Burnette said. “This is potentially a civil rights violation by government under the (federal) Civil Rights Act.”

Sandifer, who has been in the Legislature since 1995 and is chairman of the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, which handles legislation involving utilities, didn’t respond last week to multiple written and phone messages from The Nerve seeking comment.

Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee and chairman of PURC and the Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, didn’t respond directly to The Nerve’s inquiries last week, though PURC attorney Heather Anderson contacted The Nerve, saying that Alexander was unavailable then for comment.

Under state law (Section 58-3-520 of the S.C. Code of Laws), the Public Utilities Review Committee is made up of three House members, including the Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee chairman or his designee; three senators, including the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman or his designee; and four non-legislators – their appointments split between the House speaker and Senate Judiciary chairman. The House speaker and Senate Judiciary chairman appoint their respective legislative members of the committee.

For 12 years, Campbell worked for former telecommunications giant MCI as a manager, systems analyst and programmer analyst, her resume shows. For the next five years, she was employed as a sales support analyst and specialist at Cass Information Systems in Greenville, which processed and audited utility invoices for Fortune 1000 customers.

Campbell testified last year that for the past nine years, she worked part-time for a small health-care business, preparing financial statements and tax returns, and handling accounts payable functions. She holds a bachelor degree from Erskine College and a master of business administration degree from Georgia State University, according to her resume.

In its written recommendation in 2008, the Public Utilities Review Committee said Campbell had an overall “outstanding qualification to serve on the Public Service Commission.” It gave her “outstanding” ratings in the individual categories of having “substantive knowledge of the operations of the commission,” and “potential aptitude for meaningful leadership and/or service on the commission.”

PURC didn’t publicly release a written evaluation report on Campbell last year, which is its typical protocol for candidates who are not nominated.

After learning she wasn’t nominated, Campbell wrote a letter to the committee, asking it to reconsider its earlier decision.

“I was found not qualified, even though I meet the statutory qualifications and was determined to be an outstanding candidate by the same committee for the same seat in 2008,” Campbell said in her March 22, 2013, letter.

“As a result of the unique circumstances previously mentioned, the PURC only found one candidates to be qualified for Seat 3,” Campbell also wrote. “From my humble citizen viewpoint, qualifying less than two candidates seems an oversight. Competition between candidates provides more information to the General Assembly, strengthens the election process, and thereby better serves our state.”

Campbell received a short rejection letter, dated April 4, 2013, from Alexander and Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, chairman of the subcommittee that conducted the screening hearings. No reasons were specified in the letter for the committee’s decision.

“The members of the Public Utilities Review Committee were unanimous in their decision concerning your qualifications for the Public Service Commission this last screening,” the letter said.

Few Answers

Contacted by The Nerve last week, Hutto couldn’t provide specifics on the committee’s 2013 decision in Campbell’s case, referring The Nerve to Campbell’s testimony during her hearing.

Asked about Sandifer’s focus on Campbell’s children during the hearing, Hutto replied, “You’ll have to ask Sandifer that question, and her answers (to the questions about her children) played no bearing on anything that the committee decided,” though he quickly added, “Nor would I have asked it.”

Hutto, an attorney, defended the screening process, noting, “I think we are going through as rigorous a process as possible. It’s not to weed people out but to screen out those who are truly qualified.”

Still, Hutto said he would “error on the side of inclusiveness,” explaining, “If they meet the minimum qualifications, then I think they deserve to go on the ballot.”

The Nerve’s review of PSC elections since the selection process was overhauled in 2004 found that incumbents kept their seats if they sought re-election. Three seats – districts 2, 4 and 6 – are up for election this year; all three incumbents, including Hall and Fleming, have applied.

Under state law, PSC candidates must have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and a “background of substantial duration and expertise” in at least one of the following areas: energy; telecommunications; consumer protection and advocacy; water and wastewater; finance, economics and statistics; accounting; engineering; or law.

In addition, the screening committee must also consider the “ability, dedication, compassion, common sense and integrity” of the candidates, as well as their race and gender and “other demographic factors to assure nondiscrimination to the greatest extent possible.”

By law, the screening committee can nominate no more than three candidates for each PSC seat.

All candidates are given a written test before they are interviewed by a PURC subcommittee. The full committee decides who is qualified and nominated to the General Assembly for election.

Campbell scored 66 on her 2008 written test and 63 last year. The Nerve’s review of test scores since 2006 found that scores of nominated candidates ranged from 54 to 94.

Hutto and committee attorney Andy Fiffick told The Nerve last week that there is no minimum passing score on the tests. Hutto said incumbents are expected are expected to have higher scores, and that all candidates can correct missed questions during their hearings, though he didn’t know if candidates are told beforehand what questions they missed.

In 2008, the General Assembly re-elected longtime incumbent Randy Mitchell, a former Saluda County probate judge and county council member, to the 3rd District seat sought by Campbell after she withdrew from the race. As in judicial elections, which also are largely decided by the Legislature, PSC candidates typically drop out before an election if they believe a floor vote won’t be close.

Campbell tried again for the 3rd District seat last year, as did Mitchell and Randall, the former Clinton mayor who also had been a longtime administrator at Presbyterian College.

Mitchell, who had been a PSC member since 1998, dropped out of the race during the screening process, which was delayed a year because of redistricting following the 2010 U.S. Census. Lawmakers elected the only remaining candidate – Randall – to the seat, which likely won’t be open again until 2016.

Contacted Saturday, Randall said he didn’t know about Sandifer’s questioning of Campbell last year, adding that he doesn’t know Campbell personally. Randall, who scored 70 on his written test and received an overall rating of “above average” from the screening committee, said he was unaware of any minimum test score during last year’s screening.

Asked why he, as an incumbent, decided to drop out during the screening process, Mitchell told The Nerve, “I had 33 years with the state and just decided to retire and go back to my family,” adding, “I had a little health problem that popped up then.”

“There was a good man running,” Mitchell said of Randall, though he also said Randall and Campbell “both were good qualified candidates.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.