Panel has 2008 Sanford trip under scrutiny

Was governor's mission promoting trade or meeting lover, lawmakers wonder

joconnor@thestate.comDecember 8, 2009 

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford outlines Tuesday, May 19, 2009, the reasons for his vetoes on the state budget approved by the General Assembly last week, including $350 million in disputed federal stimulus money.

ERIK CAMPOS/ECAMPOS@THESTATE.COM — Erik Campos

  • 3 big questions

    The House panel weighing the proposed impeachment of Gov. Mark Sanford asked his aides, the S.C. Commerce Department and SLED for additional information about Sanford's June disappearance and a 2008 taxpayer-funded trip to Argentina during which Sanford met his lover. How those questions were answered:

    1. Were there a series of deceptions surrounding Sanford's June disappearance? Sanford admitted to misleading his staff, when he said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. No other deception from Sanford or his staff has come to light.

    2. Could the governor be reached while he was in Argentina? Some lawmakers say if Sanford was unreachable, it means he abandoned the state and should be removed on those grounds. Sanford has maintained he remained in contact. Sanford chief of staff Scott English shed no light on who was in communication with the governor. English said that, on the day that questions were raised about Sanford's whereabouts, an aide handed him a phone and Sanford was on the line.

    3. Did the governor steer his 2008 Commerce Department trip to Brazil to Argentina so he could meet his lover? Some panelists are convinced Sanford took a personal trip at taxpayer expense. Sanford's lawyers said adding the Buenos Aires leg of the trip was not his idea.

    -------------

    What's next?

    A panel of House lawmakers should wrap up its work on impeachment this week.

    Impeachment panel meets: The House committee will meet at 2 p.m. Wednesday to continue discussing Gov. Mark Sanford's 2008 trip to Argentina and possibly vote on an impeachment resolution.

    Impeachment vote: The full Judiciary Committee could meet sometime next week to debate - and possibly vote on - impeachment.

    Ethics hearing: A panel of the State Ethics Commission will hear testimony in early January on 37 ethics charges against Sanford.

    Criminal charges: Attorney General Henry McMaster has yet to say whether any of the ethics charges also could result in criminal charges.

Some South Carolina House lawmakers said Monday they think Gov. Mark Sanford scheduled a 2008 trade trip to Argentina to allow him to meet his lover.

As a result, one lawmaker said he will introduce additional impeachment charges against the governor.

Sanford's attorneys said the two-term Republican governor did not originally request the trip to Buenos Aires, and that Sanford's scheduled meetings there - with a real estate firm, the mayor, a local newspaper and others - showed it was a legitimate business trip.

Sanford, who admitted a yearlong extramarital affair in June, repaid the state $3,300 for the Buenos Aires portion of a 2008 South American trip. Sanford - in e-mails between him and his lover, obtained by The State - discusses having met with Maria Belen Chapur during the trip.

"It's more likely the governor set up the Argentina trip in 2008 for reasons other than economic development," said state Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, chairman of a House panel considering Sanford's impeachment.

Monday was the fourth meeting of that seven-member House panel. Lawmakers agreed the evidence shows Sanford was not interested in ginning up business during the 2008 trip, but said they are unsure whether that is enough to remove him from office.

The panel also agreed Monday to remove four additional State Ethics Commission charges against Sanford from its review. The panel now has said 32 of 37 ethics charges do not merit impeachment.

The Ethics Commission has accused Sanford of using state-owned planes for personal use, using business-class airfare in violation of state law, and misusing campaign funds.

The House panel will meet Wednesday to debate - and possibly vote on - an impeachment charge, which alleges Sanford abandoned his duties for five days in June when he secretly went to Argentina again, coerced staffers to mislead the public, and dishonored the state and office of governor during his disappearance. Lawmakers also are considering formally rebuking Sanford.

But Sanford could be facing additional impeachment charges, after state Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, said he plans to add two counts of "abuse of power" to the resolution before the panel. Delleney said Sanford coerced staff members into lying about his June location, a charge similar to that with which former President Bill Clinton was impeached.

Swati Patel, an attorney for the governor's office, defended the 2008 Commerce Department-sponsored trip, which included a stop in Brazil prior to a private hunting trip in Cordoba, Argentina. Though Sanford repaid the cost of the Buenos Aires portion of the trip, it was legitimate state business, Patel said.

"He was going to get criticism either way," Patel said. "He chose to reimburse."

Patel could not say which meetings on his Buenos Aires schedule Sanford attended. Commerce has said no new business resulted from the trip.

Patel also argued the Buenos Aires trip was not Sanford's idea. She said e-mails show Commerce originally had scheduled a trip to Santiago, Chile, that later fell through. That's when Commerce picked Buenos Aires, just 400 miles form Cordoba, Patel said.

However, a trip to Chile could have raised questions, too.

In July, The Washington Times reported Sanford engaged in a "private, romantic encounter" with an American businesswoman while on a 1995 congressional trade mission in Santiago, Chile. The paper reported the unnamed woman ended contact after learning Sanford was married. Sanford, in an interview with The Associated Press, admitted to crossing lines with other women.

State Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Newberry, disputed the legitimacy of the Argentine trip.

"There's been an effort to camouflage the activities," McLeod said. "But the trip was a personal adventure for which the state's funds should not have been expended."

But state Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, said there is no smoking gun that proves Sanford planned the trip for his own benefit.

"I'm not sure we can hang our hat on inferences and reading between the lines for impeachment," Smith said.

Monday, the panel also received responses to questions submitted to Sanford's chief of staff Scott English and State Law Enforcement Director Reggie Lloyd.

The e-mails shed little light on how Sanford was alerted on June 22 that media were asking questions about his whereabouts. Sanford has maintained an unidentified "back channel" told him to check with his office.

In a written statement, English said legislative liaison Marissa Crawford handed him a phone the morning of June 23 and Sanford was on the other end. English said he did not ask the governor where he was. English said he heard from other staff members that Sanford had planned to hike the Appalachian Trial - which is what his office told the media and the public. English said he knew of no other way to reach Sanford other than leaving a message on his cell phones.

English said he did not learn Sanford had been in Argentina until he read it in a story by The State newspaper.

Sanford's impeachment for abandoning his duties could hinge on whether his staff could get in contact with the governor, though Harrison said Monday he thinks the lieutenant governor automatically could take over responsibility in case of a state emergency.

In his answers, Lloyd said SLED stopped trying to track Sanford on June 18 after tracing his cell phone to the Atlanta area. Lloyd added his agency was assured by Governor's Office staffers that Sanford was fine.

Sanford's SLED-issued vehicle, Lloyd said, was not equipped with a tracking device.

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