Governor questions possible conflicts of interest in port sale

Gov. Mark Sanford ramped up criticism of the pending $16.75 million Port of Port Royal sale Monday, pointing to two of the potential purchaser's professional connections that he said "raise red flags."

In an op-ed submitted to The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet, Sanford questioned whether Neil Robinson, an attorney representing the S.C. State Ports Authority in the deal, had a conflict of interest because his firm represented purchaser Gramling Brothers Real Estate and Development in a previous development.

Sanford said Robinson has indicated that if the deal goes through, he could represent Gramling on Port Royal matters in the future.

That raises concerns of the "inherent conflicts in representing multiple interests," Sanford said.

Sanford also pointed to Mikell Harper, a former chief of staff to S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell who is now the Gramling Brothers' vice president.

"To the casual observer out there, when they see a deal that is so strikingly different than the deal everyone else was bidding on and then there happens to be someone who's tied to the world of politics... it raises that question mark," Sanford said in an interview Monday, adding that he's not accusing anyone of wrongdoing.

Robinson and Harper said they see no conflicts of interest.

Robinson said that when the Ports Authority told him Gramling had submitted a bid, he disclosed his personal connection and submitted a "conflict waiver" to the Authority signed by Gramling.

Ports Authority board chairman Bill Stern said Robinson had no say in the contract terms or selling price.

Robinson, who helped draw up a development agreement for Gramling's Cane Bay project in Berkeley County in 2006, said he hasn't been asked to work with the developer on the Port Royal project. If he were, he "would not do that unless the Ports Authority approved, and we haven't had that conversation yet."

Harper said he has not worked in Harrell's office for more than three years and called the idea that he could affect the state's decision-making process "absurd."

But Sanford, who has noted Harper's connections in the past, wrote in his op-ed piece that is "politics as usual," in which "who knows who" often determines "who gets what" from state government.

"The acquisition or disposition of property within a public body needs to be held to very transparent standards," Sanford said by phone.

Last month, the state Budget and Control Board approved a contract that breaks the sale into two $8.375 million phases -- the first for deep-water property and the second for marsh-front and inland property -- an arrangement Sanford protested.

Sanford, who sits on the five-member board, voted against the sale.

He also objected when Gramling excluded a 10-acre park from preliminary development plans -- a park that is required by a 2006 development agreement -- and proposed putting private homes in its place, officials have said.

Any changes to the development agreement would have to be approved by the town and Ports Authority.

The governor has repeatedly said the Gramling Brothers' two-phase contract and desire to eliminate the park was unfair to other potential bidders who thought they had to propose a price based on a single-phase deal and the existing development agreement.

Sanford said that to "eradicate that perception" of conflicts of interest,the property should go back on the market for 30 days so thatothers can bid based on the same terms the Gramling Brother's made their proposal.

Stern confirmed Monday that the Ports Authority -- not the developer -- proposed splitting the deal into two phases.

Sanford said that makes it even worse because it appears as "direct favoritism to one developer."

Stern disagreed and said Gramling was the only developer with a bid on the table and in the tough economic climate, negotiations were critical.

"I was very comfortable getting creative to do the two phases," Stern said. "If we would have had multiple bidders we were choosing from, I could understand the governor's positioning."