House panel kills Sanford impeachment plan

Overwhelming vote defeats resolution; committee censures governor instead

joconnor@thestate.comDecember 17, 2009 

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Gov. Mark Sanford will not be removed from office, as a House committee decided Wednesday to reprimand - and not impeach - the governor.

The House Judiciary Committee, in an 18-6 vote against the impeachment resolution, determined Sanford had not met the "serious crimes" or "serious misconduct" standard required by the state Constitution to remove him from office. Though the bill could be revived by the full House, lawmakers said it was unlikely and the bill's sponsor said he would not try.

Instead lawmakers approved, after some spirited debate, a formal rebuke of Sanford - known as censure. Sanford, the censure resolution says, abused his power during a 2008 trade trip to Argentina where he engaged in an extramarital affair, was derelict in his duties in secretly leaving the state for five days in June to meet his lover and misled the public among other allegations. The censure carries no fine or penalty.

"It will be a historical document on the record," said Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "It is a penalty. He doesn't lose his office; he isn't fined.

"It's the only thing we can do at this point to express to the public our disapproval of the governor's conduct."

The censure must still be approved by the full House and the Senate. If approved, Harrison thinks Sanford would be the first S.C. governor censured by the General Assembly.

Lawmakers debated the bill for more than three hours, wrapping up more than six months of questions about Sanford's use of public resources. The State Ethics Commission has charged Sanford with 37 counts of buying pricier business-class airfares in violation of state law, using the state airplane for personal use and misusing campaign funds.

"We'd concur with the committee's reasonable decision to reject impeachment," Sanford said in a written statement. "As we've consistently said, this administration has tried to be a stalwart ally of the taxpayer, and will remain so for the next 13 months."

Sanford still faces a January State Ethics Commission hearing on the 37 possible violations of ethics law and up to $74,000 in fines. In addition, Attorney General Henry McMaster is reviewing Ethics Commission evidence and deciding whether to charge Sanford with criminal violations or hand the case off to a local or federal prosecutor.

Harrison said that unless criminal charges are filed, impeachment is dead. Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, the bill's sponsor, said he would not try to revive the bill on the floor.

But a handful of lawmakers argued Sanford deserved to be impeached.

"At what point do you all say that something is serious?" asked Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland. "You should be offended, because I am."

Rutherford said he was angry because a state or local employee accused of improperly using public funds would likely be charged with a crime and fired from his job. But others argued Sanford was elected by the public, and impeaching him would be overturning an election.

Delleney said rejecting impeachment sent a message to state residents that "character and integrity don't really matter."

"He's lost all trust, he's lost all respect . . . he has no authority to lead this state," Delleney said.

Some lawmakers agreed a 2008 trade trip was likely arranged as a cover for Sanford to meet his lover, but noted that other impeached governors had been charged with serious criminal offenses.

Eight governors have been removed from office nationwide, and only two in the last 80 years, a point attorneys representing Sanford have repeatedly made.

As he did last week, Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, argued dragging out impeachment would do more harm than good. Sanford is term-limited and leaves office in January 2011.

"The sooner he is gone the better for our state," Smith said, "but we shouldn't allow ourselves to get distracted."

Rutherford questioned how thoroughly the committee had investigated Sanford. The panel chose not to issue subpoenas and primarily relied on public documents and voluntary interviews for its information.

Rep. George Hearn, R-Horry, said he learned in his first year that he had to depend on other lawmakers to do their work. Could he depend on the subcommittee's research, he asked?

Harrison said he could, but admitted the panel did not have the staff to chase every lead.

"We would still be here a year from now," Harrison said. "I'm satisfied we looked at everything we could look at."

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