COLUMBIA — In an unprecedented move, lawmakers delayed the vote Wednesday on Gov. Henry McMaster's two nominees for the State Ports Authority, citing the ongoing corruption probe that has pulled in three Republican legislators.
A Senate committee declined to advance the nominations of Kenneth Jackson, a vice president with SCANA Corp., and William Jones, an environmental lawyer from Bluffton.
Both nominees have tangential ties to Richard Quinn & Associates, the powerful campaign consulting firm that has come under the spotlight of investigators.
The decision by lawmakers to delay the vote likely would not have happened if the Statehouse wasn't under a cloud of alleged corruption anchored by criminal indictments of well-connected Republicans.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, confirmed he and fellow committee members want more time to review McMaster's nominees due to the probe.
"If there were not an investigation ongoing that has caused two members of the General Assembly to be suspended, had there not been subpoenas issued to the state's Ports Authority and other questions raised, they probably would have moved forward today," Grooms said after the meeting.
The governor's spokesman said he is not concerned about the delay.
“Gov. McMaster appreciates the committee doing its due diligence in reviewing his appointees but is confident that Mr. Jackson’s and Mr. Jones’ qualifications will ultimately lead to both being confirmed by the Senate,” said press secretary Brian Symmes.
Political watchers say the delay is out of sorts for Columbia where appointees are usually approved or advanced with little opposition.
"People are just waiting to see how this shakes out before taking action," said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts.
Records show the Ports Authority spent more than $1.3 million between 2013-2016 on public relations services from companies tied to Richard Quinn, the influential political consultant who has been referred to as a "kingmaker."
The Post and Courier reported Tuesday that SCANA, the utility company that Jackson works for, is also a client of Quinn & Associates, which was named in the recent indictment of Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia.
It was also reported that Jones' law partner, Weston Newton, had paid Quinn and Associates $2,350 for consulting work in 2012, and that Jones, himself, had donated $4,250 toward a failed 2010 gubernatorial campaign of McMaster, one of Quinn's biggest clients.
During his testimony at the Statehouse complex, Jackson told lawmakers he had no role in approving SCANA's business relationship with Quinn.
“I did not play any role in that contract,” Jackson said, adding that the relationship between SCANA and Quinn & Associates went back to the 1990s. “I took over and the contract was already in place and it is renewed on an annual basis.”
Jones, too, made it known he had no role in his law partner opting to use the now-scrutinized consulting firm.
"I have no idea what that payment was for," he said. "But I know that my law partner is probably one of the most honorable individuals that I have ever had the privileged to work with."
“We’re different folks,” Jones added.
Jones, who is also a a member of the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees, told lawmakers that he had approached McMaster about being a SPA board member before McMaster ascended to the Governor's office.
In the past, USC paid McMaster more than $450,000 over four years to raise money for a new law school before he became lieutenant governor in 2015.
Under the ongoing investigation, special prosecutor David Pascoe and state law enforcement officials have subpoenaed documents from the Ports Authority office and called on the state agency's director to testify, though that request was later withdrawn.
The governor's nomination of Jackson and Jones also comes after Pat McKinney, the SPA's current chairman and a former political opponent of McMaster, questioned the Ports Authority's spending on outside consultants last year.
At the same time, Mike Sisk, the SPA's current treasurer, pushed for the board's audit committee to look into the agency's spending further.
Those two board members, whose terms have expired, would be replaced by Jackson and Jones.
Throughout the committee hearing Wednesday, numerous lawmakers voiced their support for the two new nominees who they believed to be highly qualified.
But after discussing the issue in executive session, the lawmakers refused to advance the nominations to a full committee, the next step in the nomination process.
Grooms, who chaired the committee meeting Wednesday, said although there were only "small ties" to Quinn & Associates, both nominees need to be "thoroughly vetted."
Grooms added he didn't want it to appear like the committee was interfering with the ongoing criminal investigations in any way.
"Had this been a year ago, before the investigation, those questions probably would not have come up," Grooms said. "But since they came up, we're going to take our time."
"We have a new governor. These are his first high-profile appointments. I want to be fair to the governor. I don't want to needlessly hold them up," Grooms added.
Asked whether he thought Jackson and Jones would get a chance to be considered by the full Senate, Grooms pointed out that lawmakers only have until May.
"We've got eight weeks to go," Grooms said.
Other Republicans caught in the probe include two from Charleston: former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, who pleaded guilty and resigned, and former Majority Leader Jim Merrill, who faces 30 ethics-related charges.