Justices challenge Sanford, S.C. House

High court questions Sanford's request to keep ethics report private, House's claim it needs report

10/20/2009 12:00 AM

10/20/2009 1:02 AM

South Carolina's top court expressed doubts about Gov. Mark Sanford's argument to keep a South Carolina Ethics Commission investigative report private, despite contradictions in state law about who may see the report.

Sanford asked the high court earlier this month to keep the Ethics Commission from giving the House an initial report of its probe into the governor's travel. The House is weighing an impeachment trial against the governor.

But the court also challenged the House of Representatives' claim that the court should order that the Ethics Commission investigative report be given to lawmakers. Justices argued impeachment is not dependent on the report's contents or conclusions. Justices also noted lawmakers had other ways to obtain the information.

The Supreme Court heard arguments for more than an hour and a half in an attempt to settle who may see the unfinished report that could be central to whether or not Sanford is guilty of ethical or criminal violations of state law.

Sanford has been under investigation since August, after Attorney General Henry McMaster requested an Ethics Commission review of Sanford's use of state airplanes, his purchase of pricey airline tickets and his use of campaign funds. Those questions were sparked by Sanford's secret five-day trip to Argentina in June to visit his Argentine lover and subsequent media review of his travel records.

Earlier this month, Sanford asked the court to intervene on his behalf and shield the report from lawmakers, arguing the ethics report only outlines the charges against him, and not his defense against those charges. Sanford made that request after writing the Ethics Commission in late August waiving his right to keep the investigation secret, a point Associate Justice Don Beatty pointed out.

"The letter does not limit the waiver in any respect," Beatty said. "Was it grandstanding? Was it for show? Or did it mean something?"

Sanford attorney Kevin Hall said the letter should not be considered a blanket waiver. But Sanford's letter does not reference those terms, justices noted, and could be considered a total waiver of his confidentiality rights.

Chief Justice Jean Toal said Sanford's legal challenge was equivalent to the University of North Carolina's "four corners" offense, used to slow down a basketball game. Hall said there was no attempt to delay. Lawmakers believe the public will be less likely to support impeachment the longer the case wears on.

During questioning, the court pushed the S.C. Ethics Commission to admit it would turn the report over to the House, upon request, for impeachment purposes. The House could subpoena the information during impeachment, the justices said, prompting them to ask House Clerk Charles Reid why a court decision was needed?

Reid replied it would head off Sanford repeatedly challenging the report's release in court.

Cathy Hazelwood, attorney for the State Ethics Commission, also provided more details about the ongoing investigation of Sanford.

Hazelwood said the investigation's high-profile nature and amount of evidence have made Sanford's case more difficult and that the agency has negotiated some of the process with Sanford's attorneys.

Most of the information, she said, is culled from public records. In addition, Hazelwood said the Ethics Commission has provided some of the information to Sanford's attorneys and asked for their response.

Hall would not say what kind of information or questions Sanford had received from the Ethics Commission.

"There's going to be an exchange of information," Hall said, declining to answer if Sanford's claims were accurate. Hall also refused to say whether Sanford would allow a public evidence hearing before the Ethics Commission.

Ethics Commission director Herbert Hayden said he expected the initial report to be finished by early next month.

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