A House panel will begin hearings Tuesday on whether to impeach Gov. Mark Sanford, including interviewing Sanford's staff about what they knew of the governor's secret five-day trip to Argentina in June.
House lawmakers introduced an impeachment resolution this week, arguing Sanford abandoned his post to visit his lover. In addition, the State Ethics Commission has reviewed Sanford's travel and use of campaign funds and charged him Wednesday with "several" as-yet-unreleased violations.
House Judiciary Chairman Jim Harrison, R-Richland, said Friday he will chair the special seven-member committee that includes four Republicans and three Democrats.
Harrison said the committee would meet two or three times during the first 10 days of December. Harrison thought the full Judiciary Committee, if evidence warranted, could have the resolution on the floor by the time lawmakers return to Columbia on Jan. 12.
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Committee members agreed the House panel has a crucial question to answer: Who knew where Sanford was?
Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, one of four lawmakers who sponsored the impeachment resolution and a member of the impeachment committee, has argued Sanford would be fired from any military or private sector job if he failed to tell anyone where he had gone. The impeachment resolution charges Sanford "directed members of his staff in a manner that caused them to deceive and mislead public officials ... as well as the public" by telling people he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Harrison said he expects to interview Sanford's staff, but said the committee may rely on depositions instead of live testimony.
Sanford has maintained someone - still unknown - knew where he was and contacted him when the media began asking questions June 22. Because of the "back channel" contact, Sanford has said, he shortened a scheduled 10-day trip to return to Columbia.
"I think we will ask that question," Harrison said. "All I want to know is if someone in his office knew where he was," adding that if someone outside the office knew "that doesn't matter to me."
Harrison also expected the committee would be able to review a disputed Ethics Commission investigative report, after Sanford's attorneys agreed Thursday to turn it over to House leaders.
Sanford, a Republican, has been elected twice and cannot run again when his term expires in 14 months. His attorney said Sanford would work with the committee.
"We look forward to cooperating with the House throughout this process," Butch Bowers said in a statement.
Committee members said they are unsure what to expect and said the Ethics Commission report could provide them with answers and guidance about what the House should study. The House investigation also could depend on the Ethics Commission's charges against the governor.
Sanford's attorneys have indicated the commission has questioned about three dozen incidents of Sanford's travel and campaign expenses, but none include his use of private plane rides donated by friends and political allies.
The commission also reviewed Sanford's use of state planes, his purchase of pricey business class tickets and his campaign expenses.
"There is some overlap" said Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, of the Ethics and impeachment panels' focus, "but there is not complete overlap.
"We know a fair good bit, but I don't think we know everything."
Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, said he enters the hearings with an open mind.
"We'll just have to sit back and seriously consider everything before us in a deliberative manner," he said.
Charleston Republican Rep. Jenny Horne and other committee members agreed it was best to deal with the resolution before lawmakers return.
"I think that's what everyone wants us to do," she said, "so we don't take up committee time in January for the more important legislative matters."
Harrison said the full Judiciary Committee will vote on the bill, but that it will only go to the full House if merited. Some lawmakers have said the best way to resolve the impeachment question is to allow the full House to vote on the bill.
A two-thirds majority is required to charge Sanford and suspend him from office, while two-thirds of the Senate is required to remove him from office.
Most agreed the House could put the matter to rest.
"We need the period," Rep. James Smith said. "We need the conclusion."