Santee Cooper, Ports Authority board members paid thousands for part-time gig

April 16, 2021

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Unlike panels overseeing other state agencies, the governing boards of the state-created Ports Authority and utility Santee Cooper are paid thousands of dollars annually for their part-time jobs, records show.

Most members of the Ports Authority Board of Directors made $11,700 last year, while members of the Santee Cooper Board of Directors received $10,384.20 in compensation and another $2,000 in a category labeled “travel, insurance and meeting reimbursement,” according to their annual income-disclosure reports, known as statements of economic interests (SEIs), filed with the State Ethics Commission.

The Nerve last year revealed that some Santee Cooper and Ports Authority board members were receiving state health-insurance benefits, though they weren’t eligible because their positions are part-time.

The Santee Cooper board has been without a permanent chairman since the end of 2017. Then-chairman Leighton Lord, who resigned after a dispute with Gov. Henry McMaster over the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project, made $24,000 annually in compensation, plus received $2,000 for “travel, insurance and meeting reimbursement,” according to his 2017 SEI.

Acting board chairman Dan Ray reported receiving the same amount last year as other board members, his SEI shows. McMaster is expected to appoint Peter McCoy, a former Republican House member and the immediate past U.S. attorney for South Carolina, as the next chairman, The State newspaper reported last week.

Ports Authority board chairman Bill Stern made the same amount last year as most of his fellow board members, though his SEI also listed $184,225 from the S.C. Department of Agriculture for a leased lot at the State Farmers Market in Lexington County.

In a written response Thursday to The Nerve, Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Eva Moore said the lot is the site of the Cantrell Building, which the department leases from Stern’s company, “FM Building C, LLC,” and that the agency subleases space in the building to the state Department of Natural Resources and the Market Restaurant.

Moore said the $184,225 listed on Stern’s SEI is the “annual amount we pay to lease the property.” Stern is president and CEO of a commercial real estate and investment company, according to the Ports Authority’s website.

Under state law, the Ports Authority, based in Mt. Pleasant, is governed by a nine-member board appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. A 10-member legislative committee, called the “Review and Oversight Commission on the South Carolina State Ports Authority,” qualifies board members.

The oversight commission includes Senate Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence; Senate Transportation Committee chairman Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley; and House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee chairman Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee, according to Secretary of State records.

Leatherman in January introduced a proposal to borrow up to $550 million – to be repaid by state taxpayers with interest – for projects connected to a just-opened Port of Charleston terminal named after him. The Nerve last month revealed that the S.C. Treasurer’s Office projected the total taxpayer cost of Leatherman’s bond proposal at $878 million over 20 years, including $328 million in interest.

In December, The Nerve revealed that more 200 Ports Authority employees received at least $100,000 in total wages last fiscal year, with agency president and CEO Jim Newsome making $546,236 – not including perks such as a $1,000 monthly car allowance and a country club membership.

The same month, The Nerve revealed that “incentive” bonuses totaling more than $5 million were handed out last year to 1,463 Santee Cooper workers, with individual cash rewards averaging about $3,500 and topping out at $165,000 for a high-level executive.

The Nerve reported earlier last year that Santee Cooper president and CEO Mark Bonsall’s total compensation then was $1,160,652, including a $12,540 car allowance.

In a written response Thursday to The Nerve, Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said that in 1988, the “Santee Cooper Advisory Board,” led by the governor, set the current annual compensation levels at $24,000 for the Board of Directors chairman and $10,000 for other board members.

Gore said the $10,384.20 that members received last year included 27 paydays instead of 26, and that the $384.20 overpayment per member was “returned through reduced paychecks this month.”

As for the additional annual $2,000, Gore said board members are paid $75 for each committee and special board meeting up to the $2,000 cap, noting that amount doesn’t cover regularly scheduled board meetings.

The Nerve in 2018 revealed that the utility’s advisory board, made up of five elected state officials – the governor, attorney general, comptroller general, treasurer and secretary of state – raised no concerns about the abandoned $9 billion V.C. Summer nuclear construction project in Fairfield County. Santee Cooper and South Carolina Electric & Gas were partners in the project; Virginia-based Dominion Energy later purchased Cayce-based SCANA Corp., the parent company of SCE&G.

The Legislature has been considering proposals to either sell Santee Cooper, headquartered in Moncks Corner in Berkeley County; have it privately managed; or accept a reform proposal from the utility, which provides electricity directly and indirectly, through the state’s 20 electric cooperatives, to about 2 million South Carolinians.

Under state law, the utility’s 12 members of the Board of Directors, who serve seven-year terms, are appointed by the governor with consent of the Senate after candidates are found qualified by a 10-member, legislatively controlled panel known as the “State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee” (PURC).

The Nerve repeatedly has pointed out that the PURC, chaired Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, exerts considerable control over the regulation of utilities in South Carolina.

Two Santee Cooper board seats, including the chairman’s position, currently are listed as vacant in Secretary of State records. Five other members appointed by then-Gov. Nikki Haley continue to serve though their official terms have expired.

Secretary of State records also show that seven of the nine Ports Authority board members, including chairman Stern – five of whom were appointed by Haley and two by McMaster – are serving past their terms. Board terms are for five years, under state law.

Like Ports Authority and Santee Cooper board members, county magistrate judges, who are appointed by the governor after being nominated by their local senators, legally can serve after their terms have expired – a situation known as “holdover status,” as highlighted in a Nerve story on Wednesday.

The Nerve on Thursday sent written questions to a Ports Authority spokeswoman but didn’t receive a response by publication of this story.

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.

Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.

 

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