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Regulatory Compliance is Job No. 1 for GC of Oglethorpe Power
Charles W. "Chuck" Whitney joined Oglethorpe Power in 2009 from Duane Morris, where he had served as managing partner of the Atlanta firm since 2000. Prior to joining Duane Morris, he worked in a variety of senior executive positions for Southern Co. subsidiaries.
He had major responsibilities for nuclear and fossil plant construction and operations both as a lawyer and a senior manager.
He graduated with high honors with a B.S. degree from Wright State University, received a J.D. degree from Case Western Reserve University and completed the Harvard Business School management program.
He and his wife, Mary Beth, have three children, one of them a lawyer in London, which "means that we spend a lot of time in airplanes going overseas." He and his wife are avid golfers but Whitney has seen his handicap go from 12 to 16 because "I can't seem to hit the ball as far as I used to."
Daily Report: Describe your department.
Charles Whitney: We have a small department: two lawyers. I'm the chief legal officer and I have a terrific assistant general counsel who has been with us about two years. She primarily handles contracts and commercial matters but she is learning regulatory law and litigation.
DR: What are your most pressing legal issues?
CW: Regulatory complianceacross the boardfrom financial reporting, SEC, environmental compliance issues, even labor. We have developed checklists for the company managers. You just have to document everything.
DR: How does your department work with public affairs in an emergency?
CW: I work hand in hand with them. We have a small number of senior executives who work together to coordinate all press releases. I look over every press release that goes out.
DR: You served as the president and CEO of Southern Co.'s European international energy subsidiary. What was the biggest challenge in the European legal system? What did they do better than we do here?
CW: We did a lot of big project work and needed some predictability in the enforcement of our contracts. That was less of a worry in England, where they use the same common law as we do. Enforcement becomes less predictable the farther east you go.
On the other hand, I didn't really think about this until this question but they have a wonderful practice in England called the Queen's Counsel. If you have a very difficult and complex problem, you can go to the Queen's Counsel and get a formal opinion regarding legality. It's fast and cheap. It's just like a judicial advisory opinion.
DR: What is the legal department's relationship with your lobbyists?
CW: Very close. Our chief lobbyist is our senior vice president of regulatory affairs. We work together on a number of issues so as to get the maximum benefits for our owners.
DR: How has e-discovery affected your work? How do you handle discovery?
CW: We have very little ongoing litigation. Thank goodness. We don't get a lot of litigation. We are an electric wholesaler and are not generally known to the public. For that reason we don't seem to attract much litigation.
DR: Do you use outside counsel?
CW: Heavily. We use Sutherland Asbill for corporate law and specific financing; Paul Hastings for regulatory issues; Jones Day for environmental regulation and Duane Morris for construction and project work. These are our institutional firms. We have long-term relationships with these firms and it would take something dramatic to affect these relationshipslike one of the key people leaving or not being available, or a merger or dissolution.
We do have other work that we assign out to other law firms on a case-by-case basis. We like to keep in touch with other firms and see the different skill sets that are out in the market.
DR: How important is diversity to you in outside counsel? How closely do you monitor or enforce it?
CW: Diversity is very important to us. Our institutional firms have strong commitments and programs regarding diversity. We encourage these commitments and relationships and try to provide positive reinforcement every chance we get. For instance, when I see that one of our firms has promoted an associate who is diverse I will send a note to the managing partner just to let him or her know that I'm watching and it's important.
DR: Do you do alternative billing or hourly rates?
CW: For the most part, straight hourly rates. In some cases we do both hourly rates and blended rates. The hourly rate isn't important to me. The overall cost of the project is our focus. I want efficient and effective lawyers. We would rather have a lawyer who knows how to get it done rather than one who may be cheaper but is still learning how to do it. I have found that the lawyers with the highest hourly rates are often the most efficient people to use on a project.
DR: How burdensome are the regulatory issues?
CW: The environmental regulations are very difficult to deal with and they are making it increasingly more difficult for us provide reliable and efficient power. Our members need efficient power and lots of it. Some of the newer and more restrictive regulations are making it difficult for us to burn coal and almost impossible to build a new coal plant.
DR: What areas of the law need the most reforming or evaluating?
CW: Tort reform. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce advocates some form of tort reform every year, always opposed by trial lawyers. People who are injured by defective products need to be made whole and people who have suffered because of malpractice need a remedy. The whole area of tort litigation has become excessive.
DR: What was the best advice you ever received?
CW: It came from Bill Dahlberg, who was the former CEO of Georgia Power and Southern Co. We were working on a revision to the code of ethics and Bill told me that an effective code of ethics only needed three things: tell the truth, be fair, and keep your promises. If everyone just kept those in mind, we'd get so many things right in the first place.
This article originally appeared in the Daily Report.