Editorial roundup

More Kemper deceit exposed

Mississippi Power Co.’s “clean coal” boondoggle is an ongoing disaster: humongous cost overruns, grossly missed timetables, construction blunders and, now, the possibility of criminal charges for misleading investors about the still unfinished experiment in Kemper County.

The New York Times dug into the mess that some Mississippi news organizations, including the Commonwealth, and watchdog groups have been examining for years. It delivered this week, in a detailed exposé, more damning evidence against Mississippi Power and its parent Southern Co., thanks to the cooperation of a whistle-blower who took his story and his proof to the Times.

In addition to poring over thousands of pages of public records, the Times said it also reviewed previously undisclosed internal documents and emails and “200 hours of secretly though legally recorded conversations” that had been provided by the whistle-blower, Brett Wingo. The engineer originally was a true believer in the project, which is supposed to generate electricity using low-grade coal but with much less pollution than traditional coal-fired plants. Then he realized it was a pig in the poke — a massively expensive undertaking, greased by political connections and thrown on the backs of the people in the poorest state in the country, that would never live up to the promises of the utility company’s executives.

Those documents and recordings, the Times reported, “show that the plant’s owners drastically understated the project’s cost and timetable, and repeatedly tried to conceal problems as they emerged.”

Just one example, according to the Times: In February 2014, with the plant already way behind schedule, engineers at the plant told upper-level managers that the company should not promise to government regulators and private investors that the project would be done before the end of that year. The company did so anyway, publishing a schedule it knew to be false.

Wingo brought the deceit to the attention of Tom Fanning, the chief executive of Southern Co., who thanked Wingo and told him in a telephone conversation, “I plan to get to the bottom of this.”

Rather than coming clean, though, the company went into damage control, including trying to shut Wingo up. It offered him almost $1 million to keep quiet, sued him when he didn’t, and then fired him — a move that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration found was illegal.

All of this has put the plant and Southern Co. in the crosshairs of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is investigating whether the publicly traded company misled investors in order to keep its stock price from plummeting as the write-offs and bad publicity for the plant mounted.

Mississippi Power and Southern Co. aren’t the only ones who bear scrutiny for this $6.4 billion fiasco and counting. So do the Mississippi politicians who empowered it.

This project started with a lie — that it could be cost-justified. It’s no surprise the deception didn’t stop there.

Tim Kalich

Editor and Publisher

Greenwood Commonwealth