Jet-setting PSC members attended events with ties to regulated companies
By Rick Brundrett
From 2014 through 2018, four sitting S.C. Public Service Commission members collectively accepted more than $90,000 in trips and meals funded in part by utility industry trade groups, several of which have ties to companies regulated by the PSC, a review by The Nerve found.
And two of the commissioners who are expected to leave their positions when their terms expire June 30 are scheduled to take one or more out-of-state trips before vacating their seats.
Commissioners make $132,071 annually, while the PSC chairman earns $133,982.
No one has accused the commissioners of any wrongdoing. Under state law, PSC members generally can’t talk about utility cases with representatives of regulated companies without the opportunity for all parties to participate in the communication. They also by law are supposed to use “just and reasonable” standards in setting utility rates.
The seven-member PSC is elected by the Legislature and nominated by a legislatively controlled panel called the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC), which, as The Nerve has previously reported, exerts considerable control over the regulation of utilities in South Carolina.
In the wake of the 2017 collapse of the $9 billion V.C. Summer project, PSC members have drawn fire for the approval of nine electric rate hikes in prior years for then-South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G) customers to help fund the failed nuclear project. The rate increases were made possible by a 2007 state law that legislators quietly approved.
The Nerve’s latest review of annual income-disclosure statements filed with the State Ethics Commission found that PSC members John “Butch” Howard, Swain Whitfield, G. O’Neal Hamilton and chairman Comer “Randy” Randall each took multiple trips from 2014 through 2018 to events sponsored by the Washington-based National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC).
Howard and Hamilton in recent years have been members of NARUC’s board of directors, records show. Several sponsors of NARUC events during that period had ties to one or more companies regulated by the PSC, The Nerve’s review found.
State comptroller general records show that from fiscal 2008 to this month, the PSC paid NARUC a total of $359,987, while the state Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS) and the S.C. Senate and House chambers paid the organization a collective $25,929, $7,185 and $4,525, respectively.
NARUC spokeswoman Regina Davis in an email response to The Nerve said “member states pay dues” to the organization, though she couldn’t provide specifics on payments made by the S.C. agencies.
ORS spokesman Ron Aiken in an email response said the listed amounts paid by ORS to NARUC since fiscal 2008 were the “costs we paid for training courses,” adding, “We’re not a dues-paying member, and we pay the full price of the courses, which includes hotel fees.”
Jeff Gossett and Charles Reid, clerks of the Senate and House, respectively, didn’t respond to written requests for comment this week.
The Nerve also sent written questions to PSC members Randall, Howard, Whitfield and Hamilton regarding their out-of-state trips and related matters. None of them responded.
Besides Washington, NARUC destinations from 2014 through 2018 among the four commissioners included Clearwater and Orlando, Fla.; Baltimore; Boston; San Diego; and Scottsdale, Ariz., according to their statements of economic interests (SEIs).
On its website, NARUC, a nonprofit founded in 1889, bills itself as being “dedicated to representing the state public service commissioners who regulate the utilities that provide essential services such as energy, telecommunications, power, water and transportation.”
The organization’s 2017 federal tax return shows it had nearly $11 million in revenues that year.
On their recent SEIs, Howard, Whitfield and Hamilton each listed the following explanation about NARUC events: “These meetings are for educational purposes – listed under Speaking Engagement Reimbursements – per advisement of Executive Director of State Ethics Comm. – NARUC is an economic interest to the agency and not to a specific Commissioner.”
Among the sponsors of recent NARUC annual conferences and other out-of-state events were the American Gas Association (AGA), Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) and the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC), according to NARUC’s website.
Vice presidents with Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, which acquired SCANA, the parent organization of SCE&G, following the V.C. Summer fiasco, sit on AGA’s board of directors, according to AGA’s website. Kevin Marsh, the former SCANA CEO, also was a board member in recent years, records show.
Duke and Dominion are regulated by the PSC, as was SCANA.Duke and Dominion also are represented on NEI’s board of directors, according to that organization’s website. In addition, records show that NAWC’s current members include the Blue Granite Water Company, which is regulated by the PSC.
Howard, Whitfield, Hamilton and Randall each were treated from 2014 through 2018 to meals – typically dinners with listed costs of $35 or $50 – funded by the AGA and NAWC, their SEIs show.
Besides attending out-of-state NARUC conferences, Randall, the PSC chairman, also took NAWC-reimbursed trips over the five-year period to Charlotte; Savannah; St. Louis; Seattle; New York; Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., according to his SEIs.
Representatives of NAWC and AGA did not respond to written requests from The Nerve seeking comment. In an email response, NEI spokeswoman Mary Love referred questions to NARUC, Dominion and Duke.
Asked if the sponsorships by those organizations created potential conflicts of interest for PSC members attending NARUC events, NARUC spokeswoman Davis in her email response said: “Our meetings are educational and attendees include commissioners, members of federal government, consumers groups, researchers, industry and the press. Our topic selections and panelists are developed in a manner that provides constructive, useful content without causing a conflict of interest.”
Howard and Whitfield listed the highest number of trips from 2014 through 2018 – 25 and 21, respectively – most of which involved travel-expense reimbursements as guest speakers, The Nerve’s review found. Those expenses ranged from a $149.70 trip to Atlanta taken by Howard and reimbursed by a training company, to a $5,971.41 excursion to China and Japan taken by Whitfield and reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Energy, records show.
Besides NARUC conferences, Whitfield took two AGA-reimbursed trips over the period to New York, while Howard recorded two NAWC-reimbursed trips to Seattle and Phoenix, plus three trips to Toronto, Chicago and Palo Alto, Calif., all of which were reimbursed by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), according to their SEIs.
Howard is a member of EPRI’s “Advisory Council,” and a Duke Energy vice president in recent years has sat on the EPRI board of directors, according to the organization’s website. In a prepared response, EPRI said, “Twelve state public utilities commissioners serve on EPRI’s Advisory Council and are selected by the president of NARUC, not EPRI,” adding, “EPRI does not view having commissioners on its Advisory Council as a conflict.”
Following is a breakdown of the overall number of trips and total trip costs from 2014 through 2018 for the four PSC members, according to their SEIs:
Howard: 25, $34,725;
Whitfield: 21, $28,222;
Randall: 14, $17,132;
Hamilton: 4, $3,756
In addition, the commissioners collectively were provided 153 meals totaling $6,435 during the period, their SEIs show, with Howard reporting nearly half of the total.
Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Rick Brundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.