When it comes to politics, timing is everything. Especially when an election is seen as critical to the status of the only nuclear plant currently under construction in the United States.
Such is the case with Southern Company's Vogtle project and the race for two seats on the five-member Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC).
But while the larger focus of some donors may be on the $25 billion project, recent ethics complaints against the two incumbent commissioners are raising questions about the candidates' disclosures.
The non-governmental Georgia Ethics Watchdogs filed two campaign finance complaints on October 15 against Republicans Tricia Pridemore and Chuck Eaton, alleging that about $70,000 of contributions received by each failed to be "identified as being from regulated entities."
Eaton's seat, in particular, has been at the center of a costly, heated race. His challenger, Democrat Lindy Miller, has suggested that his campaign is funded by special interests, noting to Utility Dive that Eaton has received over $300,000 since 2006 "from entities related to those that he regulates."
Eaton denied being unclear in his disclosures.
He has held his seat for 12 years while Pridemore, facing off with Democrat Dawn Randolph, was directly appointed by Republican Governor Nathan Deal in February. Both have expressed support for the continued construction of Vogtle, a behind-schedule and over-budget project.
Miller and Eaton's race is being viewed as a barometer for the regulatory support for the Vogtle nuclear project. Miller, who has stated her opposition to ratepayers continuing to pay for cost overruns at Plant Vogtle, has raised over $1 million for her campaign, a high for the regulatory seat.
As press coverage around Miller's campaigning, along with Vogtle, intensifies, public attention is growing around a race that has been a down-ballot decision in the past.
"No matter how these elections play out, Southface hopes that enthusiasm and awareness of the PSC's role in the state's clean energy future will lead to even better outcomes in the years ahead," Lisa Bianchi-Fossati, policy director of regional sustainability advocacy organization Southface, told Utility Dive.
All politics, all the time
The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (GTCFC) accepted the complaints from William Perry on behalf of the ethics watchdog group, which alleged Eaton made 63 violations totaling $73,000 in campaign contributions, while Pridemore made 80 violations representing $68,375 of misreported contributions.
Georgia allows the candidates to receive money from individuals, but the state code stipulates that candidates identify any connections to regulated entities in a disclosure report.
However, the investigations could take weeks or months and cannot begin within 30 days of an election. Given the close proximity of the filing to November 6, Eaton suggested that the "frivolous ethics complaints" were politically motivated.
"No idea where [Perry]'s getting his money from," Eaton said. "What’s funny is my disclosure is actually transparent and following the letter of the law."
Perry, the founder and executive director of the Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, has a background in advocacy and works with public interest groups. He told Utility Dive he looked into the matter of misreported PSC contributions based on anonymous tips, adding that he "likely gets most" of his tips during election seasons from campaign opposition research.
"Every politician I file an ethics complaint against claims that it's frivolous and I've never had one deemed as such," Perry told Utility Dive.
In his ethics complaints, Perry cited Georgia law 21-5-30.1.d, which requires candidates to identify individuals on the payroll or serving on an electric utility, natural gas or telecommunication company regulated by the PSC. Perry also reported contributions from former executives of regulated companies, which he argued needed to be disclosed "under a strict interpretation" of the Georgia code.
Perry's examples of Eaton's contributions that allegedly misidentified connections to regulated entities include:
|Louise Scott||Executive, Southern Company Gas||9/13/2018||$250|
|Charles Rawson||VP, Atlanta Gas and Light||9/12/2018||$500|
|Hank Linginfelter||Executive, Atlanta Gas and Light||8/17/2018||$1000|
|Elizabeth Reese||EVP and CFP, Southern Company Gas||9/17/2018||$1000|
|AW Dahlberg||Retired former executive Georgia Power/Southern Company||8/15/2018||$1000|
|Don Bond||Retired former executive Georgia Power/Southern Company||9/17/2018||$2500|
The Georgia code allows these individual contributions with the caveat that candidates are transparent about them.
"These are people that I consider peers that want me to remain in this office because they have respect for me," Eaton said.
Pridemore and Eaton could be charged up to $1,000 per violation, according to Perry. An administrative law judge would issue the fines based on the campaign finance commission’s ruling, though he said GTCFC might pare down the number of alleged infractions due to potential difficulties with reporting contributions.
The commission told Perry after he filed the complaints that Pridemore had reported a glitch in the system in February, keeping her from checking the box for regulated entity when inputting contributions until the issue was fixed at the end of March 2018. He likened this to a broken traffic light.
"You don't get to run through a broken traffic light even though it's not working, you still have to stop by law," Perry said, noting available work-arounds for the reporting system, such as affiliation in job or work title.
To the nation, a race for nuclear construction
The mix of regulators in the state is seen as critical to the status of the only nuclear plant currently under construction in the United States.
Last December, before Pridemore's appointment, PSC commissioners voted unanimously in favor of a cost increase for the project, rejecting a recommendation by the commission's staff. Eaton has been a strong supporter of the nuclear expansion project, and has been on the record about that support along with fellow commissioner Tim Echols.
Georgia Power had sought approval of $8.9 billion to complete the project, but the PSC lowered that amount by $1.7 billion in part by backing out the value of a guarantee from Toshiba that backstopped its bankrupt Westinghouse Electric subsidiary.
The PSC races have attracted over $270,000 cash contributions from outside of Georgia among Pridemore, Eaton and Miller's campaigns, according to the Energy and Policy Institute (EPI).
The reported contributions show large amounts of cash generated by the incumbent PSC candidates from affiliates of their regulated entities, such as Southern Company, according to EPI's data. Up until the end of September, EPI recorded that Eaton and Pridemore received more than 40% of their contributions from Southern Company affiliates. Southern is the parent company of Georgia Power, one of the four co-owners of Vogtle.
PSC 2018 Election contributions from 7/1/17 to 9/30/18
|Candidate||Cash Total||Associated with Regulated Entities||% of Total||Associated with Southern Co.||% of Total|
"The main thing that I can tell from following this election in Georgia: the utilities and the utility-related interests are all in on the Republican incumbents, and they’ve been supportive of their projects like Vogtle in the past and are probably hoping for that support to continue," Daniel Tait, the research manager maintaining EPI's database of contributions for Georgia PSC Republican, Democratic and Libertarian candidates, told Utility Dive.
But the attention garnered by the nuclear project has not entirely translated with voters. On a local level, Democratic candidate Miller said constituents are very concerned about high electricity bills, but Vogtle is not exactly a ballot-issue.
"Vogtle has certainly elevated the importance of the seat in this election cycle. But when you talk to people across the state about their everyday lives, most Georgians are focused on their bills, their kids, and their jobs, not a mismanaged nuclear plant expansion," she said.
That said, she has been vocal about her opposition of the project, calling it a "complete failure of management and oversight."
She wasn’t the only one. Pridemore faced a Republican challenger in the primary, John Hitchins, who was also critical of the Vogtle funding, according to the Valdosta Daily Times.
"It’s clear this issue has galvanized supporters on both sides of the aisle," Tait said.
"The Public Service Commission completely failed to put in any meaningful incentives to keep the project on time and on-budget. From my experience in the business world, the people behind such a colossal mess would be fired," Miller said.
While Eaton and Pridemore received the majority of their contributions from donors that EPI identified as being connected with electric utilities and other regulated entities, Miller also received a sizable amount, according to EPI.
Eaton alleged that Miller had a lot more industry-related contributions or donations coming from big law firms, saying he believed the data would contain oversights from EPI, "just knowing how far left this organization is."
"I'm very suspicious that they're not giving the same level of scrutiny to my opponent's contributions," he said, acknowledging that he has not looked at the data closely.
While EPI only identified spending affiliated with regulated utilities and associated entities like law firms, Miller and Randoph did receive large contributions from progressive supporters, including activist billionaire Tom Steyer and his wife, Kathryn Taylor.
EPI stands behind its analysis, according to Tait, saying the organization is happy to look into any potential misclassifications for contributions to the Republican, Democrat and Libertarian PSC candidates tracked.
"We used the same methodology for all candidates. Commissioner Eaton may not like the scrutiny that his campaign contributions invites, but the facts are the facts," Tait said. "We are very clear about how we classify contributions that are associated with regulated entities."
"In a state that has never elected a female Democrat to the Public Service Commission, a recent poll showed Lindy neck-and-neck with the 12-year incumbent," Miller's campaign manager Malcolm Phelan told Utility Dive.
Miller has raised nearly $1 million in cash contributions, but the incumbent claimed he was unimpressed by the large amount.
"Fortunately for me, she's blown a lot of it," Eaton said during a phone interview, alleging that he ran with a smaller team. "Really, in all of my elections, I've been outspent."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated Miller's position on Vogtle. She is opposed to ratepayers continuing to pay for cost overruns.