- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 5, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Gov. Henry McMaster’s picks for the South Carolina Ports Authority board cleared a key confirmation hurdle Wednesday after again telling legislators their nominations had nothing to do with embattled political consultant Richard Quinn.

The nominations come amid a widening investigation into potential Statehouse corruption, which has ensnared Quinn, a veteran GOP strategist, whose clients include McMaster, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham and many other Republican officials, though there’s no indication the governor or Graham are targets.

While Quinn has not been charged, documents subpoenaed by the state grand jury as part of the investigation include data on the $3 million the ports agency has paid Quinn’s firms for public relations since 2009.

Wednesday’s vote by the Senate Transportation Committee to advance the nominations of SCANA executive Kenneth Jackson and Bluffton attorney William Jones to the Senate floor indicates senators don’t believe Quinn influenced McMaster’s choice.

“The association of these two individuals with Richard Quinn & Associates is so far removed it should not be a concern. It’s not a concern for me,” said Sen. Larry Grooms, a Republican from Charleston and the committee’s chairman.

A legislative screening panel Groom also chairs delayed voting on Jackson and Jones two weeks ago to research their potential ties to Quinn. The panel deemed them qualified Tuesday, allowing for further scrutiny by the Senate committee.

Jones told senators Wednesday he and McMaster are “close friends” who see each other regularly, and he asked McMaster about securing a spot on the ports board long before he became governor.

Jackson said he didn’t seek the post. SCANA’s initial public relations contract with Quinn predates his job at the utility by decades, he said.

He said he believes McMaster called him after GOP adviser Ed McMullen talked with the governor’s chief of staff, Trey Walker. Jackson said he’s worked with both for several years.

“There is a cloud hanging over the ports authority. It’s clear here you have no association whatsoever with that cloud,” Sen. Wes Climer, a Republican from Rock Hill, told McMaster’s nominees.

But Climer asked both how they would have voted last week, had they been on the ports board when it voted 5-3 to suspend relations with Quinn amid the probe.

Jones told senators he would have voted with the majority.

“There is no value in putting yourself in a position where you could be dragged down,” he said. If confirmed, Jones would replace the board’s chairman, Patrick McKinney, who called last week’s meeting and made the motion.

Jackson, who would replace another board member who voted to suspend payments, did not give a clear-cut answer, however.

“Right now I can’t say,” he said. “If it’s not in the best interest of the port and citizens of South Carolina, I would not keep the contract.”

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