By Johnny Kampis | Watchdog.org | February 27, 2015
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A key employee of the troubled Kemper County, Miss., power plant will remain muzzled for now, but he doesn’t seem happy about it.
Brett Wingo, who has served as a project manager for the plant being built by Mississippi Power, agreed to extend by 30 days a temporary restraining order issued byJefferson County Circuit Judge Elisabeth French when a lawsuit was filed against him Feb. 19.
That lawsuit by Southern Company Services, an arm of Southern Company, the parent company of Mississippi Power, alleges Wingo agreed to a settlement in which he would be paid to keep quiet and leave his job, but that he hasn’t executed that agreement.
The lawsuit alleges a dispute arose between Wingo and SCS over allegations the employee made against the company. It says SCS and Wingo agreed he would receive recurring financial payments — without disclosing the amount — and his employment at the company would be terminated.
In addition, the lawsuit claims the settlement included a provision to keep confidential “any information concerning events which occurred during the course of Mr. Wingo’s employment with SCS, including information related to the allegations,” with a footnote the agreement doesn’t prevent Wingo from reporting to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission any possible violations of securities laws.
Wingo said his previous lawyer, revealed as John Saxon in the lawsuit, negotiated certain terms last year, but he decided to reject them in January. SCS wants French to declare the initial agreement binding.
Wingo told French he hasn’t secured legal representation, necessitating the delay. He agreed not to file a countersuit against SCS before the next hearing, scheduled 2 p.m. March 26 in French’s courtroom.
“I’m OK with extending it,” he told the judge.
Spill the beans
Wingo, however, appears like a man ready and willing to talk.
Before the hearing, Wingo and Lee Hollis, attorney for the plaintiff, left the courtroom to avoid reporters waiting inside for the proceedings to begin. Wingo, unaware the man sitting in the hallway was a Watchdog.org reporter, told Hollis he would tell French the parties were working it out but said, “I don’t agree to the terms of the settlement.”
During the hearing, Wingo said part of the restraining order was the acknowledgement of the settlement, but noted the settlement was revealed when SCS filed suit.
“Am I refrained from talking about it?” he asked French.
“The order just controls your discussion of the settlement,” French said, telling Wingo, in effect, that while he’s not responsible for the settlement being known to the public he can’t discuss its terms.
Wingo curiously told the Associated Press on Thursday “there are certain elements of the settlement that may be harmful to the public interest,” adding he has primary objectives in his dispute with SCS other than compensation.
Neither Wingo nor Hollis would comment to reporters after the hearing.
The Homewood resident might have remained anonymous – Kemper is not mentioned anywhere in the lawsuit – if not for the snooping of Eddie Curran, a former investigative report for the Mobile Press Register who maintains a website dedicated to investigating what he calls a “smear campaign” against former Alabama Public Service Commissioner Terry Dunn by Alabama Power, another arm of Southern Company.
Curran first discovered Wingo’s resume on Indeed, which highlights prominently his work on the Kemper project.
That resume says Wingo was responsible for managing design, procurement, scheduling and startup of the gasification unit of Kemper.
Gasification turns lignite into synthesis gas, a natural gas-like substance burned by the plant’s 582-megawatt turbines to generate electricity. Carbon dioxide is removed from the gas stream after it has been converted from the lignite coal. This innovative technology will in theory reduce the carbon footprint of the plant.
Company officials say Wingo is still an employee but haven’t revealed in what capacity.
What’s the scoop?
Could any revelations by Wingo be worse than what was uncovered by the POWER Burns and Roe report?
“From a layman’s standpoint, it seems to be one of those things that raises a few eyebrows,” Louie Miller, president of the Sierra Club of Mississippi, told Mississippi Watchdog. “What’s going on here? If I was sitting on the Mississippi Public Service Commission, I’d be certainly interested in what this man has to say.”
In 2010, the Mississippi Public Utilities staff, a separate agency from the elected Mississippi Public Service Commission, hired the New Jersey-based engineering firm that specializes in utility projects to act as an independent monitor for the Kemper Project. The firm reviewed records, observed progress and filed monthly reports with the utilities staff before presenting a report to the staff and the PSC in July.
In the report, the firm criticized the metallurgy of several components that were “inappropriate” and were later changed by Mississippi Power at great cost. The report also spotlighted several safety issues resulting from these metallurgical issues. According to the report, failure of the synthesis gas scrubbers could result in “in an explosion due to a large release of toxic syngas” and an “uncontrolled ejection of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit ash into the gasifier structure and onto the plant site.” A jet fuel fire burns at that same temperature.
The report also criticized the escalating trend in 2010 of the costs of “engineered, procured materials,” and a decrease in construction costs, which the firm said was “illogical.” The first price increase in the Kemper Plant, originally planned to cost about $1.8 billion, wasn’t revealed until 2012.
That tally is now at $6.2 billion.
Photo credit: Mississippi Power Company