The State Ports Authority has shoveled thousands of dollars each month into the pockets of embattled political consultant Richard Quinn with little or no documentation to explain how he spent the money.

SPA president Jim Newsome insists the Quinn firm has done good work and its “body of expertise” has been vital to the maritime agency’s success.

But others – including members of the port’s governing board – are queasy about the arrangement with Quinn in the crosshairs of a Statehouse corruption probe.

First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, a Democrat, recently subpoenaed the SPA's records and, last week, the agency's board of directors suspended payments to Quinn, citing the investigation that has so far netted indictments against three lawmakers.

The appointed special prosecutor has been following the many tentacles from Quinn’s firm that snake through the halls of state government. Quinn’s influence and stable of clients extend from the governor’s office to the coastal port agency, an economic powerhouse in South Carolina.

Outgoing SPA Chairman Pat McKinney is among the board members who last year began questioning payments to Quinn's firm and other politically connected consultants who, combined, are getting more than $1 million a year despite no formal contracts, performance reviews, competitive bidding or documentation of their work. The practice is legal because the SPA is exempt from state procurement laws.

Board members aren't the only ones with misgivings about this arrangement.

Quinn's vague invoices to the SPA alarmed former South Carolina health agency director Catherine Templeton, who abruptly resigned her more-recent position as a senior vice president of the maritime agency only weeks after being hired. Templeton, a Republican candidate for governor in 2018, came to the port after a stint heading the state Department of Health and Environmental Control under former Gov. Nikki Haley.

"In the three to four weeks I was at the port in late September 2015, I was presented a Quinn and Associates invoice," Templeton told The Post and Courier. "Since it had no description or contract, I asked senior management what it was for. I was told it was for 'board advice.' "

Templeton, who was in charge of the SPA's legal, external affairs and human resources, said she "left almost immediately thereafter."

Newsome said he has seen nothing to suggest the SPA didn’t get a good return on its investment with Quinn's firm, which offers deep expertise in communications and state politics.

But government watchdogs contend the murky arrangement and scant documentation make it almost impossible for the public to know whether their money was spent properly or not.

John Crangle, government relations director for the South Carolina Progressive Network, said the SPA’s loose payment practices create "an almost irresistible temptation for the misuse of money.” Crangle’s group promotes accountability in government.

The payments have long been a concern to Crangle because Quinn's consulting invoices show no details for work that he has performed in exchange for between $8,100 and $9,000 per month that he has been paid since 2009 under a no-bid agreement that, until recently, wasn't in writing.

"There should be a full-blown hearing on the whole business of what’s going on at the Ports Authority and one part of that should be whether they even need those consulting services," Crangle said.

Help during tough times 

Quinn has been an influential force in South Carolina politics for nearly four decades, and his clients have included everyone from Gov. Henry McMaster to Ronald Reagan, Strom Thurmond, Lindsey Graham and John McCain.

Though mainly a behind-the-scenes player, his name exploded into the public arena in recent times as word surfaced that he and his son, Lexington Republican state Rep. Rick Quinn, were being pulled into the Statehouse probe. The drumbeat of rumors grew louder last month when Quinn’s firm was named in an indictment accusing respected state Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia, of improperly funneling campaign money through the consultant for personal gain.

The state investigation shows no signs of slowing down. To the contrary, news surfaced last week that Pascoe had drafted three other solicitors - including Charleston County's top prosecutor, Scarlett Wilson - to his prosecution team. Pascoe declined to comment on the development when contacted by The Post and Courier.

Quinn has not been charged with a crime, and he has maintained that his firm has done nothing wrong. But he remained silent last week as the SPA board temporarily pulled its lucrative work from his company.

Quinn's relationship with the SPA dates to early 2009, prior to Newsome's arrival and a time when the Port of Charleston was facing serious problems. Container shipping was in decline, the maritime agency's previous CEO had just resigned and Maersk Lines — one of the world’s largest shippers and the port’s top customer — had announced plans to leave Charleston by the end of the year.

"The port was in a pretty different place at that period in time," said Newsome, who joined the agency in September 2009. "I think the board reached out to Richard Quinn for some assistance."

Quinn's firm helped the SPA's board navigate changes in state law that created greater oversight of the agency, Newsome said. It also produced opinion pieces for newspapers and speeches for SPA executives that helped improve the agency's public image. Quinn helped the SPA recruit Newsome, a career shipping executive and head of North American operations for Germany's Hapag Lloyd.

"The board needed to keep a certain amount of confidentiality about what they were doing internally," Newsome said of Quinn's early work for the agency. "They couldn’t rely on their existing internal resources. They didn’t want to use their internal PR people because there was some confidentiality related to my being hired and things of that nature."

Because of that, Newsome said, there was no written contract spelling out what consulting work Quinn would do for the SPA and how that work was to be evaluated. It wasn't until 2016, after The Post and Courier and board members raised questions about Quinn's sparsely documented consulting work, that the SPA asked Quinn for a written statement of his duties.

"We advise the executive leadership of the ports authority, as well as board members when requested, on strategic communications and public relations issues," Quinn stated in the July 1 memo outlining his work. "We do not lobby. But we help educate the public on the key role the ports authority plays in job creation and its importance to the statewide economy."

Quinn's firm also has worked on print and broadcast marketing campaigns touting the port's economic impact, and it conducts polls to gauge the public's perception of the maritime agency.

"The people of South Carolina are our shareholders and we need to have a good understanding of their perception of us," Newsome said. "Are we on the right track? It’s kind of like market research."

Still, a line-by-line accounting of how the money sent to Quinn is spent remains an elusive target. And his firm is not alone in that regard.

Sunrise Communications, a public relations firm owned by Democratic Sen. Darrell Jackson of Hopkins, earned $48,000 providing marketing and consulting services to the SPA in 2011 and 2012, according to state financial disclosure filings. A contract shows the firm was hired to promote efforts to deepen Charleston's harbor to accommodate larger container ships following the Panama Canal expansion.

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The port lauded the company when The Post and Courier asked about its work in 2015, calling Sunrise a “respected and capable advocate” that had represented the port at numerous community events. But neither the port spokeswoman nor Sunrise’s president could recall specific details of those events, and no reports were submitted detailing the work Sunrise did.

Suspended pay, more questions

McKinney, the SPA chairman, led a vote to temporarily suspend payments to Quinn during a special meeting last week that exposed the fissures among board members over the consulting arrangement.

"There is enough legal uncertainty that this suspension is more than warranted," McKinney said before the board voted 5-3 to halt the monthly payments. "Until the air has been cleared, it is imperative that we take appropriate action to protect both the business and the public image of the State Ports Authority."

"I’d like more information on who’s doing business on our behalf. Are there any conflicts? Are the amounts right?" board member Rick Stanley said at the time. Stanley is among the board members who voted to suspend payments to Quinn.

Bill Stern, a friend of Quinn’s, was one of a trio of board members who voted against suspending payments to Quinn during last week's contentious meeting at the SPA's Concord Street headquarters. Stern said nothing has changed since the board first questioned the payments a year ago and agreed at that time to let the SPA's staff decide whether the consulting work was necessary.

"Until something is proven, and even at that time I would still look to senior staff and Jim," Stern said. "I have enough confidence in Jim and his staff to make the determination."

Newsome said he has been happy with the work Quinn has produced, adding that the roughly $100,000 paid per year for consulting is a small part of the SPA's annual $200 million budget.

"Our philosophy is to buy the best that we can buy in the area of need, and there aren’t that many people who are geared up to do statewide polling and messaging and we feel they’re good at it," he said. "I have no question that we’ve bought good services or I would have acted to do something about it."

Newsome says he isn't worried that money the SPA has paid to Quinn might have been misused.

"I don’t have any reason to be concerned about that, but I’m not doing the investigation," he said. "I’m at a wait-and-see point, just like everybody else. I tend to believe in the view that people are innocent until proven otherwise."

But Crangle, the watchdog, questions whether the payments to Quinn are necessary in the first place.

"Why do they need Quinn to promote the Ports Authority? And even if they do need him, what is he doing to earn that money?" Crangle said. "If the Ports Authority truly needs those services, it should be open for bid to all public relations firms to make sure the taxpayers are getting the best possible value for their money."

Schuyler Kropf, Glenn Smith and Andy Shain contributed to this report. 

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

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