Last November’s plea agreement of Kevin Marsh, former CEO of utility SCANA, ultimately proved not to be the last in the still-ongoing federal investigation into the V.C. Summer “nuclear debacle,” as it has been termed by investigators and others.
On June 10, U.S. attorneys announced Carl Dean Churchman, a former Westinghouse vice president and project director for the abandoned South Carolina nuclear power plant expansion, as the third person—and the first contractor—to plead guilty in the fraud case. And he may not be the last person involved with the project to face possible charges, acting U.S. Attorney Rhett DeHart suggested in announcing the plea agreement.
"It’s clear that our investigation into the V.C. Summer nuclear debacle didn’t end with the SCANA case,” he said. “Our office is committed to seeing this investigation through and holding all individuals and companies who participated in this fiasco accountable.”
Churchman pleaded guilty to making a false statement to an FBI agent, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of five years in federal prison. As Marsh did in his plea deal, Churchman similarly promises to cooperate with federal state and local law enforcement agencies “until the investigation and prosecution in the criminal acts that occurred in relation to the failed V.C. Summer Nuclear plant expansion are complete,” according to the announcement by the U.S. Attorney's office in South Carolina.
Key Evidence: Westinghouse Email Chain
Churchman’s crime relates to SCANA’s public reporting in early 2017 of project completion dates that Marsh and other utility executives knew to be false. The early 2017 timeframe is notable because Westinghouse ended up filing for bankruptcy protection in March of that year. That action precipitated the announcements by both SCANA and project co-owner Santee Cooper, four months later in July 2017, that both utilities were abandoning the project.
The decision by the utilities to abandon the project would ultimately trigger lengthy hearings by the South Carolina Public Service Commission in 2018 and also prompted state legislators to seek billions of dollars in restitution to ratepayers, who funded construction via a “nuclear fee” on their electric bills. Dominion Energy, which acquired SCANA, has previously agreed to provide roughly $4 billion in ratepayer relief.
The announcement of the Westinghouse executive’s plea deal noted that Churchman claimed “that he did not know the dates before they were reported,” and that he didn’t know who decided to report the dates to SCANA. According to Churchman’s LinkedIn page, he worked for Westinghouse Electric Co. from May 2015 to December 2019, when he was vice president and project director.
However, notes taken by SCANA Executive Vice President Steve Byrne—who pleaded guilty to mail and wire fraud in July 2020—of an early 2017 meeting with Westinghouse executives proved that Churchman did, in fact, report the completion dates to SCANA on February 14 of that year.
Additionally, Churchman claimed that “Westinghouse’s executives did not consult him prior to (his) reporting the completion dates to the owners.” However, federal officials used “emails and other documents” to prove Churchman’s assertion of ignorance was, in fact, a lie, noting that an “internal Westinghouse email chain establishes that Churchman received and discussed the dates in early 2017.”
Reached by ENR, a Westinghouse spokesperson said the company is not able to comment on the matter.
As they did with Marsh’s plea announcement, federal investigators are again proclaiming that the case is far from over.
“The investigation is obviously ongoing,” DeHart said on June 10 during comments outside federal district court in Columbia, S.C.
“This is the first executive from a company other than SCANA to plead guilty," he said. "Two SCANA executives have pleaded guilty, and now a Westinghouse executive has pleaded guilty,” adding, “There’s more to come.”