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Top ex-SCANA official Stephen Byrne pleads guilty in SC nuclear fiasco fraud case

Source: 
State

Jul. 23--COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Stephen Byrne, a top executive of the now-defunct SCANA electric utility, pleaded guilty Thursday to criminal conspiracy fraud charges in federal court in Columbia.

Byrne's guilty plea showed that SCANA's downfall -- triggered by a failed $10 billion effort to build two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County -- was the result of not just mismanagement or incompetence, but criminal conduct at the company's highest levels.

The destruction of SCANA, a Fortune 500 publicly traded company that traced its business lineage back to 1846, was one of the crown jewels of South Carolina's economy. It also was perhaps the most costly failure in the state's economic history.

Byrne was part of a conspiracy that engineered a "cover-up" to hide the extent of the publicly traded company's financial problems, according to charging documents in his case. "Through intentional misrepresentations," Byrne deceived regulators and customers, documents said.

Byrne, 60, who appeared with his lawyer, Jim Griffin of Columbia, said little during Thursday's hearing before U.S. District Judge Mary Lewis. He will be sentenced at a later date and, as part of a plea bargain, could testify against any alleged co-conspirators.

Byrne received a $25,000 unsecured bond, which means he doesn't have to pay any money and can walk free until his sentencing. Byrne, who has ties to Great Britain, can leave the state and the country but only with permission, and he is surrendering his passport as a condition of his bond, Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges said.

His bond is low and unsecured because Byrne has been cooperating with investigators for more than a year, he has extensive ties to South Carolina and his lawyer said he's never even gotten a traffic ticket.

Everyone in the courtroom, for both hearings, wore a mask or a clear-plastic face shield.

Peter McCoy, U.S. Attorney for South Carolina, spoke about Byrne during the hearing.

"In truth, Byrne believed the schedule to be unreliable and unable to achieve," McCoy said, referring to the nuclear project's construction schedule which was falling severely behind despite SCANA officials saying the project was progressing well.

So far, Byrne is the only former SCANA official to be formally charged in the case. However, more charges are expected against other former SCANA officials.

"The United States anticipates filing additional criminal charges against other members of the conspiracy," prosecutors said in a court filing last month.

The guilty plea was the result of a three year investigation by the FBI and prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Columbia.

Byrne was greeted at the courthouse shortly before 10 a.m. by half a dozen protesters who jeered and taunted him. Most of them had objected to SCANA's rate scheme which made customers pay for the nuclear project for years in advance.

SCANA's failure affected the pocketbooks of hundreds of thousands of people and businesses. For years, the company had jacked up customers' monthly power bills to help pay the billions in ongoing construction costs for the two nuclear reactors that were supposed to be built, but now will never generate power.

For years, SCANA gave off a dependable stream of steadily rising dividends to investors and current and retired company employees. It was headquartered in Cayce, had thousands of employees and some 700,000 electric customers and 350,000 natural gas customers in South Carolina.

SCANA has since been absorbed by the Virginia-based Dominion, an energy giant.

This story is developing. Check back for details.

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(c)2020 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

Visit The State (Columbia, S.C.) at www.thestate.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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