Sanford ethics case still awaits a resolution

joconnor@thestate.comFebruary 4, 2010 

A state ethics panel that is investigating Gov. Mark Sanford is not likely to resolve soon whether the two-term Republican broke state law with his travel and campaign expenses.

Herbert Hayden, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said the nine-member panel has not yet asked to schedule a hearing on 37 charges that Sanford's use of state aircraft, business-class tickets and campaign money violated state ethics laws.

Hayden said the commission's docket is crowded and finding a full day to weigh the evidence in the case may be difficult.

"They haven't given us any indication at all of when they want to hear it," Hayden said of the nine-member panel, appointed by Sanford but confirmed by the S.C. Senate.

In announcing the charges in November, Hayden said the panel would consider them after the new year. The 37 charges carry a maximum fine of $74,000.

Sanford's attorney Butch Bowers declined to comment about the Ethics Commission's failure to schedule a hearing.

Once Sanford's divorce is completed - expected later this month - the only outstanding legal questions stemming from his secret five-day June trip to Argentina to see his lover are the ethics charges and whether S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster decides to file criminal charges. The ethics investigation stemmed from media examinations of Sanford's travel and campaign records and other public documents.

McMaster's office still is reviewing the evidence in the Sanford case and has not reached any conclusions, spokesman Mark Plowden said.

"I'm not going to let politics mix with law enforcement and prosecution," McMaster said last week at a Charleston debate.

McMaster is seeking the GOP nomination for governor to succeed Sanford. One of his Republican opponents is Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who would become governor if Sanford were removed from office.

However, House lawmakers decided last month not to impeach Sanford, instead approving an official rebuke. The Senate has not acted on that rebuke, which is in a committee.

Hayden said that the Ethics Commission is not waiting on the attorney general's decision, but that it could be some time before a three-member ethics panel schedules a hearing on Sanford's case.

The commissioners all have day jobs, Hayden said, and the Sanford hearing is expected to be a long day.

"It's strictly a scheduling issue," Hayden said, "With the assumed length of the hearing, it's going to have to be a special day set aside."

However, the case could be disposed of before a hearing if Sanford and the Ethics Commission agree to a settlement.

Or it could drag on.

If a three-member ethics panel finds Sanford guilty of violations, the governor can appeal the case to the full nine-member commission and, then again, into the courts.

Lawmakers rejected nearly all the ethics charges when weighing whether to impeach Sanford in December. State Rep. Jim Harrison, the Richland County Republican who chaired the House impeachment panel, questioned why the Ethics Commission charged Sanford with some of the violations.

Sanford has said he expects the Ethics Commission will clear him of wrongdoing.

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

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