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Westinghouse official who helped SCANA fool the public on nuclear project to plead guilty

The last defendant in the six-year-plus financial and nuclear construction scandal involving the now-defunct SCANA utility has agreed to plead guilty.

The defendant, Jeffrey Benjamin, a former top executive at Westington Electric Co., is scheduled to plead guilty next Thursday in federal court in Columbia to the felony charge of “aiding and abetting the failure to keep accurate corporate records” — an action that in turn helped allow SCANA officials to lie to the public and regulators about the perilous state of its ongoing nuclear construction project in Fairfield County, according evidence in the case and documents filed Thursday in U.S. District Court.

A plea deal says that Benjamin will be sentenced to between probation and 12 months in prison. He could also have a financial penalty of up to $100,000.

Had Benjamin been found guilty in a trial, the maximum penalty he would have been exposed to is 20 years in prison and a $5 million fine. However, as a first time offender with no criminal history, his sentence would have been much less than the maximum.

A statement issued Thursday through Benjamin’s attorney, William Sullivan of Washington, said, “When Mr. Benjamin became aware in late 2016 that SCANA’s securities disclosures were misrepresenting the risk of further construction delays, he regrettably allowed Westinghouse to continue to primarily focus on the potential for the construction schedule being achievable, rather than delivering a clear and specific message emphasizing the likelihood of further delays that would force SCANA to correct its securities disclosures.”

The statement continued, “Throughout the life of the V.C. Summer project, however, Mr. Benjamin was fully committed to completing the project and deeply regrets that Westinghouse ultimately became financially unable to do so.

“Mr. Benjamin is committed to continuing his devotion to the industry that he has spent his career championing by using his considerable expertise to work towards making nuclear power in the United States accessible, sustainable, safe and secure,” the statement said.

Other charges against Benjamin — who was first indicted in 2021 and again last month — will be dropped, under the plea deal. Those charges included conspiracy, wire fraud and securities fraud.

SCANA, a public company whose shares were traded on the New York Stock Exchange, was the chief sponsor of the $9 billion, multi-year project to build two nuclear reactors to produce electricity at the V.C. Summer facility near Jenkinsville north of Columbia.

The project — one of the largest construction projects in state history — failed in the summer of 2017 following cost overruns and missed deadlines, leaving more than 4,000 workers jobless. Other losers were SCANA’s hundreds of thousands of rate payers, who for years had had surcharges tacked on to their monthly bills to help pay ongoing costs of the doomed project. SCANA was eventually acquired by Dominion Energy of Virginia.

SCANA had hired Westinghouse in 2008 to oversee construction on the project. Over the years, as the pace of construction faltered, SCANA began issuing false rosy statements about the project. Under federal law, a publicly-traded company is required to make factual disclosures to investors, the public and regulators.

As Westinghouse’s senior vice president for new plants and major projects, Benjamin had “first-line responsibility for the construction of Westinghouse’s nuclear reactors worldwide,” including those at V.C. Summer, according to an information — or a criminal charge — filed Thursday.

Although Benjamin knew that SCANA was making false representations to the public and regulators, he “never notified authorities of SCANA’s inaccurate books and records”· and neither did he inform SCANA that its representations were not correct, the information said.

The plea agreement specifically says that criminal acts in the SCANA case were committed by “someone other than the defendant (Benjamin),” but also that Benjamin “associated himself with the criminal venture knowingly and voluntarily.”

Federal Judge Mary Geiger Lewis will preside over Benjamin’s plea hearing next Thursday at the Matthew Perry courthouse in Columbia.

The most recent indictment in Benjamin’s case said in part, “As construction problems mounted, costs rose, and schedules slipped, the defendant (Benjamin) and others hid the true status of the project.

“Through intentional and material misrepresentations and omissions, the defendant... deceived the owners, regulators, and investors in order to maintain cash flow and liquidity for Westinghouse.

“The defendant’s misrepresentations and omissions, as well as the associated cover-up, resulted in billions of dollars of losses to the owners and investors,” the indictment said.

SCANA was involved in the project with Santee Cooper, a state agency that is also a utility. SCANA, with a 55% interest, was the senior partner.

Other defendants in the case have pleaded guilty.

They are two former SCANA top executives — CEO Kevin Marsh and Chief Operating Officer Stephen Byrne. Both pled guilty to fraud and were given prison terms in connection with the cover-up.

Marsh received two years in federal prison and Byrne, 15 months.

In October, Judge Lewis gave six months’ home detention to a former top Westinghouse construction official, Carl Churchman, for lying to an FBI agent during the federal investigation into why the V.C. Summer project failed.

In 2017, as the project was on the verge of failing, Churchman helped SCANA make public rosy projections of the project’s completion dates, although he knew those dates were unrealistic, according to evidence in the case.

Churchman would have been expected to testify at any trial involving Benjamin. Churchman received six months’ home detention.

Benjamin’s lawyer, Sullivan, noted that former SCANA executives Marsh and Byrne “have previously each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud without in any way implicating Mr. Benjamin in the crafting or publication of their false disclosures.”