Lawmakers question Sanford's role in port talks

COLUMBIA -- Gov. Mark Sanford made repeated efforts to have the State Ports Authority sell valuable land at Port Royal in Beaufort County to a favored developer, according to testimony a Ports Authority board member gave to the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday.

That developer, Chaffin/Light Associates, is led by Jim Chaffin, a Sanford campaign contributor.

Some legislators said the governor overstepped his bounds by pushing for a deal that would benefit a contributor.

The governor counters that he has acted in the best interest of the state's taxpayers by weighing in on the plan to sell state-owned coastal property another developer tried to purchase for $26 million.

Before that deal fell through, Chaffin/Light had made the higher of two offers for the land last year. But, despite what board ember Bill Stern described Wednesday as Sanford's strong backing of Chaffin/Light, the Ports Authority rejected both offers because they were too far below the appraised value of the land.

Stern offered details of his talks with Sanford as the Transportation Committee considered his renomination to the board along with the nomination of two new members. In an interview after his testimony, he said he had "three, four or five discussions with the governor" about the sale.

Stern's description of Sanford's advocacy goes beyond the governor's description of his efforts.

In an opinion piece published in the Beaufort Gazette on Sunday, Sanford indicated he did not direct the Ports Authority to make a deal specifically with Chaffin/Light.

"Much has been made of my contact with Jim Chaffin, who developed not only Spring Island in Beaufort County but a wide variety of projects across the country," Sanford wrote. "I have been transparent about my contact with him and will say again that while we don't necessarily need his organization, we need a group with a (commensurate) level of experience and a history of quality work ..."

Sanford's spokesman, Joel Sawyer, made the same point Wednesday.

"The governor from Day One has said he knows Jim Chaffin," Sawyer said. "He knows he's reputable and does good work. He has said the state needs a developer like him, who is reputable and has the financial wherewithal to make this work."

Stern's comments indicated he saw little distinction between the Ports Authority selling the land to a company "like" Chaffin/Light and actually selling the land to Jim Chaffin's company.

"(Sanford) pushed hard for me to try to make a deal with him," said Stern, who was chairman of the Ports Authority at the time but now serves as vice chairman. "I don't know Jim Chaffin. Evidently, the governor does. He knew he was a quality developer."

Sanford's involvement in the sale of the land Stern said one of his conversations with the governor lasted 45 minutes and left him "irritated" has struck some legislators as inappropriate.

"It's hard for me to speak to any person's motivation," said Sen. Gerald Malloy, a Darlington County Democrat who is a member of the Transportation Committee. "Something that takes 45 minutes ... that leaves a lot of questions."

Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, was more blunt.

"I think the governor had every right in the world to call and express his opinion," Knotts said. "But I don't think the governor had a right to try to direct a contract to a friend or campaign contributor."

Sanford has made no apologies about his involvement in the sale. He said he was involved because he believes the area has untapped potential and because he wants to make sure the developer chosen is one who can deliver on promises.

After the Ports Authority rejected the first two offers for the land, it hired a real estate firm to seek others.

The Ports Authority reached a $26 million deal in November with another firm, Port Royal Harbour LLC. But Sanford expressed concerns about the personal reputation of one of the company's leaders and about the firm's ability to meet its financial obligations in the deal, a position some of the governor's critics saw as another attempt to help Chaffin/Light.

The deal with Port Royal Harbour collapsed last month amid financial concerns.

The land, 50 acres local officials want to see developed for residential and commercial use, remains for sale.

Stern, initially appointed to the Ports Authority by Sanford's Democratic predecessor, Jim Hodges, described Sanford as a friend. He served as a finance committee member for Sanford's re-election campaign in 2006.

Sanford reappointed Stern to the board and has the authority to remove him, a point he acknowledged during testimony before the Transportation Committee.

By a unanimous voice vote, the committee approved Stern's renomination and the nomination of two new members.

Those nominations now go before the full Senate.