High Court: documents must be released

Ruling clarifies decision on Ethics Commission investigation

joconnor@thestate.comDecember 2, 2009 

South Carolina's highest court declared the S.C. State Ethics Commission must release any documents related to its investigation of Gov. Mark Sanford that also are turned over to the governor.

The ruling clarifies a Nov. 5 decision that declared the documents - including a disputed investigative report - but which some, including the S.C. Ethics Commission, considered unclear.

The court's verdict upholds House Speaker Bobby Harrell's position that the documents were public. Harrell, R-Charleston, had asked the court to clarify its ruling.

"This court's opinion of November 5, 2009, unambiguously supports the Speaker's position. We therefore order the Commission to immediately make public all documents provided to the Governor during the course of its investigation in the underlying matter," the court wrote in Wednesday's decision.

The decision is somewhat of a moot point, after Sanford's attorneys released the disputed document last week, but could set a precedent for future cases.

The court ruled Sanford waived all confidentiality with a public statement, despite privately negotiating terms with the S.C. State Ethics Commission.

The Ethics Commission has wrapped up an investigation into Sanford's travel and campaign spending. It concluded the governor might have violated state ethics laws 37 times by using the state plane for personal use, buying expensive airline tickets and improperly spending campaign funds.

Today, a House panel considering impeachment charges against Sanford will meet for the third time. It will review the Ethics Commission's charges stemming from the governor's purchase of business-class tickets for overseas travel when state law mandates low-cost travel. The panel also will review some of the governor's campaign spending.

Removing Sanford from office would require a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate.

Attorneys representing Sanford have argued the governor's use of the state plane and his purchase of business-class flights are in keeping with the practice of other governors.

Nothing in the Ethics investigation, they argue, rises to an impeachable offense. The state allows the Legislature to impeach a governor for crimes and "misconduct in office."

Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, authored an impeachment resolution that characterizes Sanford's five-day secret trip to Argentina as misconduct in office.

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