Dillon inland port

Gov. Henry McMaster addresses attendees at the groundbreaking for a new inland port in Dillon to be built by the State Ports Authority. McMaster is appointing two new members to the authority's board of directors. Provided/State Ports Authority

Gov. Henry McMaster wants to replace two State Ports Authority board members, one a former political rival who questioned how the maritime agency spends money with contractors including Richard Quinn, the governor's longtime political strategist.

The move comes during an ongoing investigation into Statehouse corruption that, among other things, has led to subpoenas of records of the SPA's spending with Quinn and others. 

The two appointees would replace the expired terms of a pair of former Gov. Nikki Haley's key supporters as the SPA builds a new container terminal named after one of Haley's most bitter rivals — powerful state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, the Florence Republican who controls the state's purse strings as chairman of the Senate's budget-writing committee.

The appointees — Kenneth Jackson, a SCANA Corp. vice president, and Bluffton environmental lawyer William Jones. One of the governor's duties is to appoint members to state board and commissions.

“The governor’s decision to fill expired terms on the Ports Authority Board by appointing Mr. Jackson and Mr. Jones had everything to do with making sure that their unwavering pro-business voices are at the forefront of one of our state’s most important economic engines – and nothing else,” said McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes.

The SPA operates the Port of Charleston and the Port of Georgetown. The new board members still need legislative approval before they can be seated.

Jackson would replace Pat McKinney, the SPA's current chairman. SCANA is one of Richard Quinn & Associates’ clients, according to a company advertisement touting "political, nonprofit and corporate clients ranging from … Henry McMaster and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin to SCANA and the non-profit group, Friends of the Hunley."

McKinney unsuccessfully ran against McMaster for lieutenant governor in 2014 and last year raised questions about the millions of dollars the SPA spends on consultants — including $1.3 million given to Quinn's First Impressions Inc. public relations firm between 2013 and 2016. Another $232,367 went to a firm Quinn operates with Columbia communications consultant Bob McAlister.

The SPA currently pays Quinn a consulting fee of $8,100 per month in addition to ongoing work with McAlister. Recently, the SPA paid $35,000 to Quinn and McAlister to conduct an opinion poll of statewide residents focusing on cruise ships.

McKinney said Tuesday he has "no idea" whether questions about Quinn's payments played a role in his failure to be reappointed.

"I hoped to be able to continue to serve, but it’s certainly the governor’s decision and I will continue to serve until my replacement has been confirmed by the Senate," said McKinney, a retired Kiawah Island real estate developer.

Jones would replace Mike Sisk, an accountant and the SPA's current board treasurer. Sisk joined the board in 2013 to fill a seat vacated by Karen Floyd.

"I’m disappointed because I love working with the port. I think we have a great board," Sisk said, adding that "it's hard to speculate" about whether his alliance with Haley played a role in him being replaced.

"I don’t think there’s anything negative," Sisk said. "A sitting governor wants to populate boards and commissions with people that sitting governor trusts and is familiar with. It’s certainly within his right and responsibllity to do that." 

Sisk, during a meeting last year in which questions were raised about the SPA's payments to consultants, pushed the board's audit committee to meet more frequently to "understand more in depth the budget process and really look behind the macro numbers."

Jones contributed $4,250 toward McMaster's failed run for governor in 2010, according to state Ethics Commission reports. He also contributed $1,000 to McKinney's campaign against McMaster for lieutenant governor. Weston Newton, a partner in the same law firm as Jones, spent $2,350 with Richard Quinn & Associates in 2012 for consulting, according to campaign disclosure reports

The SPA's board members are paid stipends of $11,700 per year.  

McKinney's term expired in 2016 and Sisk's term expired in February, although board members typically continue to serve until a replacement is named.

A joint commission of state House and Senate members will consider McMaster's appointments during a hearing Wednesday in Columbia. If approved, Jackson and Jones could take their seats on the SPA's board in time for its April 19 meeting.

"I don't see much controversy with either of the appointments," said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, chairman of the joint commission.

Grooms said the commission will review background checks, credit histories and business relationships for both appointees to determine whether they are qualified to serve on the board. A confirmation hearing would then be held before the Senate's transportation committee followed by a vote of the full Senate.

"It's a process that will take a couple of weeks at a minimum," Grooms said.

McKinney and Sisk were appointed by Haley, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. McMaster succeeded Haley as governor in February.

McKinney and Sisk also are trustees for Haley's nonprofit group, The Original Six Foundation. Another SPA board member, Pamela Lackey, also is a foundation trustee.

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Haley last year named McKinney for a second term on the SPA's board. That reappointment was blocked by Leatherman, who questioned McKinney's attention to business details and his working relationships with other board members during a contentious Senate Transportation Committee hearing.

That hearing took place weeks after The Post and Courier reported on the SPA's payments to Quinn and others, prompting McKinney's statement during a February meeting that he wants the SPA board to "have a more extensive review of the budget."

Leatherman, at the time, was paying Quinn's firm $139,000 to help him win re-election against a Haley-backed opponent.

"If Nikki Haley were still governor, I imagine she would have resubmitted Pat McKinney's name," Grooms said. "But she's not there, and this is strictly Gov. McMaster's call."

Quinn's consulting firm was named in an indictment issued last week by David Pascoe, a special prosecutor leading the Statehouse corruption investigation. That indictment accuses state Sen. John Courson of siphoning nearly $133,000 in campaign cash for his personal use by funneling funds through Quinn's firm. Quinn has not been charged with any crime. Courson has been suspended from office.

Pascoe last week subpoenaed documents from the SPA, including invoices and correspondence related to the Quinn services. Pascoe also called Jim Newsome, the maritime agency's president and CEO, to testify before a state grand jury, though that request was later withdrawn. Newsome did not mention the subpoena during a board meeting last week.

The corruption investigation has named a trio of legislators, with further indictments expected.

Bobby Harrell, the former Republican House speaker from Charleston, was an initial target of the investigation. He pleaded guilty in 2014 to charges he used campaign money for personal benefit.

In December, a grand jury indicted state Rep. Jim Merrill — a Republican from Charleston and a former House Majority leader — on charges that he accepted or solicited more than $1 million from groups with Statehouse legislation at stake during his 15-year career in Columbia. He has been suspended from office.

Quinn founded Richard Quinn & Associates in 1978 and his clients have included Ronald Reagan, Strom Thurmond, Lindsey Graham and John McCain. But the firm’s influence is much more pervasive on the state level. Between 2009 and 2015, at least 22 candidates for state offices spent more than $2.1 million with Richard Quinn & Associates, a Post and Courier analysis of campaign disclosure records shows. McMaster is one of the top spenders, giving $376,000 to the Quinn firm.

The governor appoints the nine voting members of the SPA's board of directors. The state's Secretary of Commerce and Secretary of Transportation each appoint one non-voting member. Board members elect one person to serve as chairman for a two-year term. If McKinney and Sisk are replaced, a new chairman and treasurer will have to be elected at a future board meeting.

Tony Bartelme and Andy Shain of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_