Sanford's office hires lawyer, on taxpayers' dime

gnsmith@thestate.comNovember 25, 2009 

  • Defending Sanford

    Lawyers for Gov. Mark Sanford have drafted a defense as lawmakers take up an impeachment resolution that could remove him from office. The ethics charges against Sanford are minor and technical. Attorneys for Sanford have done the math to make this point. According to their math, the Ethics Commission questioned just 3 percent of his flights and 2 percent of his campaign expenditures.

    Disappearing is not an impeachable offense. A governor's temporary absence from the state does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense under South Carolina law. When the governor is away, power automatically transfers to the lieutenant governor, Sanford's lawyers say.

    Impeachment sets a bad precedent. No S.C. governor every has been impeached. Removing Sanford, his attorneys argue, would intimidate future governors.

    Impeachment is an overreaction. Sanford's attorneys say there is a high bar for impeachment that has not been met. Sanford's attorneys liken impeachment to the death penalty. They say a lesser punishment is fitting for ethics violations.

Gov. Mark Sanford has a second layer of legal protection - at taxpayers' expense.

The governor's office has hired Connecticut-based attorney Ross Garber to represent its interests as lawmakers begin deliberations on whether to impeach the embattled, two-term Republican governor.

Garber, who will be paid $150 an hour by the governor's office and report to the governor, has represented public officials under investigation and white collar criminal defendants.

He may be most well-known as the ethics expert who represented the Connecticut governor's office when John Rowland faced a 2004 impeachment effort. Rowland subsequently resigned and pled guilty to a corruption charge.

Sanford already has private attorneys.

Garber said he was hired to protect the institution of the governor's office and to help lawmakers realize the gravity of their deliberations.

"The eyes of the world are on South Carolina," Garber said Tuesday, adding lawmakers' decision on whether to impeach Sanford will have ramifications for future S.C. governors and the state.

Garber said Sanford's disappearance for five days in June to secretly visit his lover in Argentina does not meet the high standard required for impeachment.

The state Constitution says serious crimes or other serious misconduct are the only reasons for impeachment.

"I hope the House looks at the history and realizes what they're doing is an extraordinary thing," Garber said, adding only 16 governors nationwide have ever been impeached and only eight were removed from office.

Impeachment efforts have become increasingly rare in recent history.

In the past 80 years, only two governors have been impeached. In both cases, criminal charges alleged they had committed felonies.

"The further you get away from (a felony charge), the more difficult it is to justify impeachment," Garber said.

Garber sent S.C. House members a research paper Monday, detailing why impeachment is inappropriate in Sanford's case and, ultimately, he contends, bad for South Carolina, disrupting the balance of power among the three branches of government.

A subcommittee of House members held its first meeting Tuesday to discuss an impeachment resolution that contends Sanford abandoned the state for five days.

Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.

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