COLUMBIA — Years before South Carolina was saddled with two failed nuclear reactors, SCANA and other utility companies hosted “appreciation dinners” for the lawmakers who pick the state’s seven utility regulators, The Post and Courier found.
The social affairs were held at top-end restaurants in cities across the country, with the state’s largest utilities lavishing some of the Legislature’s most influential lawmakers. All of these lawmakers were on the Public Utilities Review Committee. That little-known panel selects and oversees the commissioners who decide how much we pay for water, gas and electricity.
During one dinner in July 2012, four lawmakers, their wives and a number of legislative staffers gathered with more than 19 utility officials at the Bluehour restaurant in downtown Portland, Ore., where you can order a $44 rib-eye steak or a $150 caviar dinner.
These same lawmakers would help choose the make-up of the state’s Public Service Commission, whose members earn more than $100,000 a year while deciding whether to grant utility requests for rate increases. That commission approved rate hike after rate hike tied to the unfinished $9 billion nuclear plant — nine increases over the course of the project.
The Post and Courier’s findings come on the heels of the paper’s investigation “Golf, Beaches and Power,” which revealed how utility-backed groups paid tens of thousands of dollars to cover conference trips for the state’s public service commissioners.
The “appreciation dinners” were listed in the utilities’ lobbying records and highlight the lengths that SCANA and other utilities go to influence lawmakers and regulators alike. The dinners also showcase the cozy relations utility executives enjoy with the people who run the state.
The findings come amid a vigorous debate among lawmakers about potentially widespread changes to the ways state government regulates utilities, including possible bans on gifts and political contributions from the state’s utility monopolies.
The dinners were held at some of the same conferences where public service commissioners rubbed elbows with lawyers, lobbyists and utility executives. At least six current and former lawmakers on the utility committee attended the elegant dinners in Portland, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Charleston between 2009 and 2012.
“No issues or nothing were discussed,” said Sen. Thomas Alexander, a Republican from Walhalla and head of the Public Utilities Review Committee. “It was just a dinner.”
In 2009, Alexander also was one of four lawmakers who attended a barbecue cooking class at the Culinary Institute of Charleston and a separate dinner at the now-closed Cypress Restaurant on East Bay Street.
Those utility-funded meals came less than four months after commissioners green-lighted the V.C. Summer project, even though the utility only had a “generic” construction schedule in place.
Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Conway, said he attended the dinners because he gave a presentations at the regulatory conferences about the utility laws in South Carolina. The Senate Judiciary chairman said the events were “purely educational” in his experience, but he is open to reconsidering the state’s ethics rules for utility companies in order to prevent another situation like V.C. Summer.
Documents show Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Seneca, attended the utility’s dinners in South Carolina and two other states, but the veteran lawmaker said he doesn’t remember attending the events.
“I would tell you if I could remember what was involved in that. I truly don’t,” said Sandifer, who also chairs the House’s powerful Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee. “When you go back eight, nine years ago, it’s hard for me to recall what we were doing at a particular time. It’s not that I don’t want to tell you, but I am just truly drawing a blank.”
In every case, the dinners were sponsored by SCANA, Duke Power and a number of other utility groups. This can bypass the state’s limit on how much a single company can spend on lawmakers. Sandifer called it “stacking.”
Other lawmakers who attended the dinners declined interviews for this story or did not respond to phone calls and text messages. That includes Rep. Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg, and former House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-St. Matthews.
Sen. Brad Hutto was another guest at the dinners, where the utilities spent hundreds of dollars. The Orangeburg Democrat recalled them being large gatherings attended by everyone from South Carolina that was at the utility regulatory conferences, including lawmakers, legislative staffers and the utilities’ top attorneys.
Hutto doesn’t see a problem with the utility functions as long as they are clearly reported to the State Ethics Commission. That wasn’t the case for the lawmakers in many instances.
Hutto, for one, isn’t interested in a complete ban on the gifts and conferences paid for by the utility companies. He believes the events are educational.
“My view is all of that is fine as long as I report it,” he said. “I think transparency would cure a lot of the potential for conflict, if that’s what the issue is.”
Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.