After a nearly five-month search, the State Ports Authority has zeroed in on a choice for its new chief executive: Jim Newsome, president of German-based container carrier Hapag Lloyd's America division.

Though SPA officials would not release any details of the potential hire, sources close to the process said the agency narrowed its list to five candidates, with Newsome as the clear front-runner. If he accepts the position, Newsome's tenure will begin amidst port restructuring discussion at the Statehouse and ongoing negotiations with the SPA's top customer, Denmark-based Maersk Line, which announced plans to depart the Port of Charleston in December. A month later, then-chief executive Bernard S. Groseclose Jr., who earned a $264,000 salary, resigned abruptly during a performance evaluation. Port board member John Hassell assumed the position of interim chief executive.

Before Groseclose landed the job in 1996, The Post and Courier filed a lawsuit against the SPA when the agency refused to release the names of six finalists. The agency disclosed the names the day before a scheduled hearing in the case.

Hassell, then chairman of the Maritime Association and a vocal opponent of the SPA's perceived secrecy during the 1996 search, told The Post and Courier in January, "I'll never forget it. It's going to be different."

Reached Thursday afternoon, he deferred to search committee chairman and SPA board member Bill Stern, a Columbia businessman who oversaw the 13-member committee.

Stern said the SPA has not drawn up a contract with a new chief executive and that the board hasn't approved the new hiring. But, he said, they will at this month's board meeting. He said the committee, which paid executive search firm Boyden $97,500, launched an international search and considered more than 100 applicants. The group narrowed the list to seven people, interviewed five and zeroed in on one person, according to Stern.

He declined to name that person or the other top candidates and said an attorney would consider a Freedom of Information Act request. Stern said the committee members signed confidentiality agreements.

"I want to be as open and transparent as possible, but I also want to get the best individual for the State of South Carolina," Stern said. "The individual that we have now is going to take us to heights we haven't seen."

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said the search committee should make public the documents concerning all applicants under final consideration.

"When these searches are done in secret, it hurts the credibility of the Ports Authority," he said.

Robert New, owner of Charleston Port Services, raised concerns similar to Hassell's during Groseclose's 1996 hiring. This time he worries that the search committee includes only one person who works on the docks and is moving toward a decision without public input.

"I understand the concerns of the Ports Authority, but the flipside of it is should the maritime community know who the finalists are, they might be able to provide feedback helpful to the final process," New said.

Responding to a phone call and e-mail, Newsome declined to comment. A Savannah native, he in January became the first non-German to head Hapag Lloyd's North American operations based in New Jersey just outside of New York City. He previously served 11 years as the company's senior vice president of its Southeast operations based in Atlanta.

Newsome worked as an executive of the former Nedlloyd Lines from 1987 to 1997 and, prior to that, spent a decade with Strachan Shipping Co.