What happens next with Sanford likely in his hands

November 22, 2009 

GOV. MARK SANFORD doesn't win any brownie points on transparency for agreeing to release an ethics report after he apparently learned that it doesn't contain any bombshells.

And we have a hard time understanding how the State Ethics Commission decided to give the report to the governor without also releasing it to the public, in light of the unanimous Supreme Court ruling that said the public was entitled to "all documentation to which he is entitled." It seems that if the commission was unsure how to read the court's ruling, it should have held off giving the report to the governor until it received the clarification that it sought.

Nonetheless, we're glad that, whatever his motives, Mr. Sanford finally has agreed to act in a way that is consistent with his long-standing opposition to government secrecy. That should eliminate the need to waste any more of the courts' time on this matter.

We're also glad that Mr. Sanford agreed to amend his annual economic interest reports to include free flights he received from people he characterizes as friends. There never was any suggestion that there was anything wrong with taking those trips - only that he should have reported them. That particular question would have been cleared up immediately had he simply amended his reports when questions first were raised about the free travel.

We hope his belated action demonstrates a willingness to stop digging in his heels and fighting even when there was no good reason (even from his perspective) to do so. That new approach to ethics laws - which is diametrically opposed to the way he handled such matters even as recently as this summer, when he voluntarily repaid the state for a perfectly legitimate business trip that included a rendezvous with his Argentine mistress - was more disturbing than the apparent misuse of state planes and campaign funds.

It is disturbing to have what amounts to an indictment for ethics law violations brought against a sitting governor, and even more disturbing that his lawyers continue to downplay their significance, arguing that the Ethics Commission took issue with only 3 percent of the governor's taxpayer-funded flights and only 2 percent of his campaign expenditures. That's like a bank robber defending himself by saying he made deposits on 97 percent of his trips to the bank.

Even though indications are that the laws the Ethics Commission believes Mr. Sanford violated are relatively minor ones, generally punishable by small fines and likely not a legitimate basis for impeachment, the fact is that violating any ethics law is a serious matter. And the governor needs to start acknowledging that. Doing so would be another important step toward getting back to what he liked to refer to as going the extra mile to make sure he was beyond political approach.

If he can manage to do that, it should go a long way toward taking any steam out of the impeachment effort that House leaders plan to launch this week, or at least in simplifying and speeding up the process. That is vitally important because it would allow the General Assembly to stop fixating on Mr. Sanford and focus instead of addressing the very real problems that confront our state.

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