Sanford's aircraft use defended

Governor's lawyers argue disputed uses of state aircraft minor in nature

joconnor@thestate.comDecember 2, 2009 

  • What's next

    The House panel weighing Gov. Mark Sanford's impeachment will meet Thursday.

    - The panel Thursday will look at Sanford's use of campaign money and his failure to report private plane trips on his ethics report.

    - The State Ethics Commission next month will hold a hearing on 37 alleged ethics violations regarding Sanford's travel and use of campaign money.

    Questioning plane trips

    The House panel looking into impeachment charges against Gov. Mark Sanford tossed out charges connected to four of nine state plane trips the State Ethics Commission says could have violated state law. The panel also added another trip to consider.

    Under investigation

    - A 2005 flight to attend an Anderson County Republican Party dinner

    - A 2006 flight to a National Governors Association meeting in Lewisburg, Va.

    - A 2007 flight to Greenville to attend an event of the S.C. House Republican Caucus

    - A 2006 flight from Mount Pleasant to Aiken to attend the birthday party of a campaign contributor

    - A 2008 flight to Charleston to attend a Reason Foundation dinner (a conservative think tank)

    - A 2008 flight to South America - paid for by taxpayers as an economic-development trip - where Sanford admitted meeting with his lover. Sanford subsequently repaid the state more than $3,000. But the panel added this trip to its investigation Tuesday.

    Tossed out

    - The infamous 2006 haircut flight, where Sanford was alleged to have ordered the state plane to pick him up in Myrtle Beach and return him to Columbia for a haircut

    - A 2006 flight to Mount Pleasant for a book signing

    - A 2006 flight from Myrtle Beach to Columbia to attend a son's sporting event

    - A 2008 flight to Hard Rock Park in Myrtle Beach

    What's next

    The House panel weighing Gov. Mark Sanford's impeachment will meet Thursday.

    - The panel Thursday will look at Sanford's use of campaign money and his failure to report private plane trips on his ethics report.

    - The State Ethics Commission next month will hold a hearing on 37 alleged ethics violations regarding Sanford's travel and use of campaign money.

Gov. Mark Sanford's attorneys argued the two-term Republican only used state aircraft for official business, adding lawmakers were "splitting hairs" over ethical violations - proof Sanford had done nothing to warrant his removal from office.

Sanford's attorneys laid out their defense during a three-hour hearing examining the governor's use of state aircraft, the second of four scheduled House impeachment hearings.

However, the House panel voted Tuesday to expand its inquiry into the 2008 trade trip to Brazil that Sanford detoured from to meet his Argentine lover. This summer, Sanford reimbursed the state $3,300 for airfare to Buenos Aires and expenses.

Impeachment committee chairman James Harrison, R-Richland, said he agreed with Sanford's attorneys that the panel should reject some of the nine charges the State Ethics Commission lodged against the governor for his use of state aircraft.

Harrison said five charges may cross legal lines but added he had yet to make up his mind.

Lawmakers are reviewing Sanford's use of state aircraft and campaign money, and his abandoning of his duties for a secret five-day trip to Argentina in June.

Sanford's attorneys, Butch Bowers and Kevin Hall, laid out a three-tiered defense of the governor's use of state aircraft:

- Every trip could be considered official business, they said, adding an opinion by the S.C. attorney general allows state plane use for official business. Lawmakers questioned whether some trips - one dropped the Sanford family off for a vacation on the Georgia coast - benefited the state.

- Sanford received no personal economic benefit from the flights. Lawmakers, however, said the governor avoided the time and expense of traveling by other means.

- None of the charges justifies overturning an election and removing Sanford from office, something done only twice in 80 years nationally and then only when governors were charged with felonies. Lawmakers said they had yet to determine whether the totality of charges might warrant impeachment.

"He was there to advance the policies and agenda items of his office," Bowers said, responding to questions about Sanford's 2005 trip to speak at an Anderson County Republican Party meeting. Sanford was invited to the events, Bowers said, because he held the office of governor.

Bowers said - and lawmakers agreed - that ethics law is unclear about whether use of a state plane to attend a political event is barred, adding there is no attorney general's opinion on the issue.

But state Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, a co-sponsor of the impeachment resolution, said common sense should rule.

"There's no need (for an attorney general's opinion). It's so obvious you shouldn't use the state plane to attend partisan fundraising events," Delleney said.

State Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Newberry, said Bowers' claim could justify a "high form of monkey business," justifying the use of state aircraft because the governor was invited for official reasons.

The attorney general opinion "does not support what you say it says," said McLeod, a former U.S. prosecutor.

Lawmakers expressed the most skepticism about a 2006 flight that took the Sanford family from a National Governor's Association meeting in West Virginia to a family vacation on the Georgia coast.

Hall said one could justify flying the Sanfords to the coast rather than using his security detail to drive them there late at night.

"Would you consider this seriously stupid?" asked state Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, "or serious crimes and misconduct?"

Hall said parsing the decision was "hair-splitting."

Lawmakers also questioned Sanford's use of the state plane to attend a Charleston book signing and an Aiken birthday party.

Both events were thrown for companies that hire state residents, Bowers said, and could be considered part of a governor's economic development duties.

Harrison said he would suggest the committee pare down the state aircraft charges, citing five he thought might be illegal.

Harrison agreed state law is unclear on use of aircraft, but added the impeachment panel must decide whether the sum of the charges merited impeachment. Though some lawmakers wanted to hear directly from Sanford, Harrison said he thought the committee already had enough documentation.

The panel also has requested more information from the State Law Enforcement Division and Sanford's staff about how they tried to contact Sanford while he was in Argentina, if those methods were successful, and how Sanford's staff learned of the governor's location.

The panel meets again Thursday to look at Sanford's use of campaign money and his failure to report private plane trips on his ethics reports.

Reach O'Connor at (803) 771-8358.

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