Impeachment proposal vote likely today

House panel has been scrutinizing behavior, spending

joconnor@thestate.comDecember 9, 2009 

  • Path to impeachment

    While increasingly unlikely, House lawmakers could move to impeach Gov. Mark Sanford in one of three ways:

    Abandoning his post - The first and strongest charge, according to state Rep. James Harrison, R-Richland, is that Sanford abandoned his duties by leaving the state for five days and having his staff mislead the public and media. The ordeal has tarnished the state and the office of governor, critics say.

    An ethics whopper - This path is less likely after 37 ethics charges yielded few surprises. The wild card is Sanford's 2008 trade trip to South America, during which Sanford met his Argentine lover. Sanford repaid the state more than $3,000 for the Argentina portion of the trip. Lawmakers are investigating whether Sanford arranged the trade trip as a cover for his tryst.

    A tipping point - A third option is lawmakers could conclude that, while no single charge is impeachable, the weight of the charges shows a pattern of misconduct. This door likely closed last week when lawmakers decided about three-quarters of the ethics charges against Sanford likely were not the "serious misconduct" required for impeachment and removed them from the scope of their inquiry.

    Trip expenses

    What Gov. Mark Sanford spent on his trip to Argentina, where, he admits, he met his lover. Taxpayers paid $11,981 for air travel and other expenses for the trip by Sanford and a Commerce Department aide to Brazil and Argentina. Sanford reimbursed the state $3,300 for the trip.

    Air fares

    Gov. Sanford

    From Columbia/Atlanta to Sao Paulo, Brazil - $3,689.23

    From Sao Paulo to Cordoba, Argentina - $492.84

    From Cordoba to Buenos Aires - $318.42

    From Buenos Aires to Atlanta/Columbia - $4,143.54

    Travel agent's fee - $43

    Total - $8,687.03

    S.C. Commerce Department employee W. Ford Graham

    From Columbia/Atlanta to Sao Paulo, Brazil - $660

    From Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires - $330

    From Buenos Aires to Atlanta/Columbia - $870.80

    Travel agent's fee - $43.00

    Total - $1,909.80

    SOURCE: S.C. Department of Commerce

A House panel likely will decide today if Gov. Mark Sanford should be the first impeached executive in South Carolina history.

Members of the seven-member panel say the vote will likely set a precedent for judging future governors' conduct.

Sanford has been under scrutiny since June, when he left the state for five days for a secret Argentina rendezvous with his lover. Since then, the media, S.C. State Ethics Commission investigators and lawmakers have reviewed Sanford's entire record, from his use of state aircraft and campaign funds to whether he coerced his staff to lie on his behalf and planned a 2008 South American trade trip as a cover for his extramarital affair.

Lawmakers already are considering one impeachment charge - for abandoning his duties - and will debate a second today. No matter the outcome of today's vote, the full Judiciary Committee will debate impeachment Dec. 16.

Sanford's attorneys have argued that nothing the governor did meets the "serious crimes" or "serious misconduct" standards required by the state constitution, and the unlike other impeached governors, Sanford has not been charged with or convicted of a felony.

The full House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to meet next week, which could end the impeachment questions or send the matter to the full House for a vote.

"I think it is" a historic moment, said Rep. James Smith, D-Richland and a member of the impeachment panel. "I'm treating it like that."

Most committee members have not committed to whether or not Sanford deserves impeachment. The panel has relied mostly on public documents, interviews and media accounts. The panel has yet to ask for subpoena power or forced Sanford to answer questions directly.

Lawmakers during the hearings have criticized Sanford's behavior, arguing he used a 2008 South American trade trip as a cover for his affair, and that similar behavior in the military or private sector likely would have cost him his job.

But the committee also has drawn a line at what should not be impeachable, throwing out all but five of 38 Ethics Commission charges against the governor.

Sanford will face a January Ethics Commission hearing on those charges, which carry a total possible fine of $74,000.

Today's debate will lay out where the dividing lines are among House members.

Ross Garber, attorney for the governor's office, said the House committee has taken the proper, methodical approach with the charges.

"No (S.C.) governor has ever been impeached before," Garber said, noting the state's "high and rigorous impeachment standard."

"The facts reflect the governor hasn't committed serious crimes or serious misconduct."

Smith, like most members of the committee, takes the responsibility seriously.

"It will set a standard when we take a vote," Smith said. "It will be a yardstick by which others are judged."

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

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