Judge tosses charges against executive in South Carolina nuclear debacle, but case may not be over

Aug 3, 2023, 10:28 AM | Updated: 10:34 am

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A judge has ordered criminal charges dropped against the final executive accused of lying about problems building two nuclear reactors in South Carolina that were abandoned without generating a watt of power.

The judge tossed the charges Wednesday because ratepayers of the utility that lost billions of dollars on the project were improperly allowed on the grand jury that indicted Westinghouse Electric Co. executive Jeffrey Benjamin.

But federal judge Mary Geiger Lewis also ruled that nothing is stopping prosecutors from properly seeking another indictment.

“We’re not going away,” said assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday, who said prosecutors are still reviewing the ruling to decide their next steps.

Benjamin faced 16 charges including securities fraud, mail fraud and causing the failure to keep accurate corporate records in his role in the failure to build two reactors for SCANA Corp. at the V.C. Summer site in Jenkinsville.

The project fell apart in 2017 after nearly a decade of work, when executives and regulators determined construction of the reactors was so hopelessly behind schedule they could not get nearly $2 billion of tax breaks needed to help pay for the work.

SCANA contracted with Westinghouse to build the reactors. Prosecutors said Benjamin , who was in charge of major projects, knew of delays and cost overruns but lied to regulators, utility executives and others. The lies led to electric rate increases while keeping the price of SCANA’s stock from plummeting.

Benjamin’s lawyers asked for the indictments to be tossed because the grand jury pool was pulled from several counties where utility ratepayers on the hook to pay for the project were at least 60% of the population and prosecutors didn’t exclude them from the grand jury or assure they were not angry and biased against SCANA and the people involved in the project’s failure.

“Mr. Benjamin’s unequivocal Fifth Amendment right to an unbiased grand jury was compromised in this case,” defense attorney William Sullivan Jr. said in a statement that also praised the judge’s “lucid and articulate ruling.”

Lewis called her ruling a “drastic remedy,” but said it was necessary since prosecutors cited ratepayers as victims of Benjamin’s lies and schemes along with investors and utility executives.

“It is common sense that in a robbery case, the person who allegedly had their belongings taken would be barred, as a victim, from participating in indicting the accused, no matter if there was a mountain of evidence against the accused or if the victim insisted they could remain impartial,” Lewis said in her ruling.

Benjamin’s trial had already been moved to Greenville after his attorneys said the broad coverage of the nuclear debacle and the majority of ratepayers in a jury pool would make a fair trial in the Columbia area impossible. Only about 10% of potential jurors around Greenville were SCANA customers.

Benjamin is the final executive to face charges.

Two former SCANA executives have been sentenced to federal prison after pleading guilty to their roles in lying to ratepayers, regulators and investors. Former CEO Kevin Marsh received two years while chief operating officer Stephen Byrne was sentenced to 15 months.

Former Westinghouse project director Carl Churchman has pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents investigating the project’s failure and is awaiting sentencing.

The fiasco exposed problems in building nuclear reactors in the U.S. from drawing up easy-to-use construction plans to making them an affordable, carbon-free power source.

Earlier this week, Georgia Power Co. announced commercial power was finally being generated from its Unit 3 at Plant Vogtle, southeast of Augusta. The reactor was seven years late and $17 billion over budget — more than doubling the unit’s original cost. It is the first nuclear reactor built from scratch in the U.S. in more than three decades.

National News

Associated Press

Wisconsin Republicans propose impeaching top elections official after disputed vote to fire her

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A group of Republican Wisconsin lawmakers on Thursday proposed impeaching the battleground state’s top elections official as Democrats wage a legal battle to keep the nonpartisan administrator in office. Democrats say the GOP-controlled state Senate acted illegitimately when it voted along party lines last week to oust Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator […]

25 minutes ago

Associated Press

Wildfire-prone California to consider new rules for property insurance pricing

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A new plan from California’s insurance commissioner aims to stop the nation’s top insurers from leaving the wildfire-prone state by letting them consider climate risks when setting their prices. Unlike most states, California tightly restricts how insurance companies can price policies. Companies aren’t allowed to factor in current or future risks […]

28 minutes ago

Associated Press

Former Mississippi Democratic Party chair sues to reinstate himself, saying his ouster was improper

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The former chair of Mississippi’s Democratic Party has filed a lawsuit seeking to reinstate himself as its leader, arguing that he was improperly ousted in July. Tyree Irving, a former appellate judge who had chaired the state party since 2020, was voted out by a majority of party officials at a […]

1 hour ago

Associated Press

Remains of Michigan soldier killed in Korean War accounted for after 73 years

DETROIT (AP) — The remains of an 18-year-old Army corporal from Detroit who was killed in the Korean War in 1950 have been identified, officials said Thursday. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced that Cpl. Lewis W. Hill was accounted for on May 22 after agency scientists identified his remains using dental and anthropological analysis […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

A toddler lost in the woods is found asleep using family dog as a pillow

FAITHORN, Mich. (AP) — A 2-year-old girl who walked away from her home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula alongside two family dogs was found in the woods hours later sleeping on the smaller dog like a furry pillow, state police said. “She laid down and used one of the dogs as a pillow, and the other […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

California sues anti-abortion organizations for unproven treatment to reverse medication abortions

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California Attorney General Rob Bonta on Thursday sued an anti-abortion group and a chain of anti-abortion counseling centers, saying the organizations misled women when they offered them unproven treatments to reverse medication abortions. Heartbeat International, a national anti-abortion group, and RealOptions Obria, which has five anti-abortion counseling centers in Northern California, […]

3 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Swedish Cyberknife...

September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

September is a busy month on the sports calendar and also holds a very special designation: Prostate Cancer Awareness Month.

Ziply Fiber...

Dan Miller

The truth about Gigs, Gs and other internet marketing jargon

If you’re confused by internet technologies and marketing jargon, you’re not alone. Here's how you can make an informed decision.

Education families...

Education that meets the needs of students, families

Washington Virtual Academies (WAVA) is a program of Omak School District that is a full-time online public school for students in grades K-12.

Emergency preparedness...

Emergency planning for the worst-case scenario

What would you do if you woke up in the middle of the night and heard an intruder in your kitchen? West Coast Armory North can help.

Innovative Education...

The Power of an Innovative Education

Parents and students in Washington state have the power to reimagine the K-12 educational experience through Insight School of Washington.

Medicare fraud...

If you’re on Medicare, you can help stop fraud!

Fraud costs Medicare an estimated $60 billion each year and ultimately raises the cost of health care for everyone.

Judge tosses charges against executive in South Carolina nuclear debacle, but case may not be over