Panel finds probable cause for charges against Sanford

State Ethics Commission doesn't specify what the allegations are

11/19/2009 12:00 AM

11/19/2009 2:12 AM

A state ethics panel has found evidence Gov. Mark Sanford may have broken state law, charging him with "several" undisclosed violations after an investigation into his travel and campaign spending.

State Ethics Commission director Herbert Hayden on Wednesday would not provide details of the charges, nor would he clarify whether the violations were ethical or criminal.

But Sanford's attorney, Butch Bowers, said the charges were "minor, technical matters" that did not include criminal violations.

A three-member panel of the commission now must hear witnesses, weigh evidence and decide whether Sanford is guilty of the charges at a later date, Hayden said. Sanford can make that a public hearing, but has not yet chosen to do so.

"They found probable cause exists on several allegations," Hayden said, reading from a short, prepared statement. "(The commissioners) wanted me to point out that a finding of probable cause is not a finding of guilt. It is only one phase in the process."

Hayden said the commission hopes to set a hearing date, likely for early next year, and to release the list of charges on Monday.

The ethics panel is scrutinizing Sanford's travel and use of campaign funds stemming from his five-day clandestine trip to Argentina in June. Sanford later admitted an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman and reimbursed the state more than $3,000 for a 2008 trade trip during which he saw his lover.

The two-term Republican governor, who cannot run for re-election, has 14 months left in office.

But the trip to Argentina and the ethics probe have lawmakers weighing whether to remove Sanford from office.

The ethics investigation is the first of its kind for a sitting South Carolina governor, the Ethics Commission said. Eight Ethics commissioners studied and discussed evidence behind closed doors for about seven hours Wednesday before reaching a decision.

The commission is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. Once appointed, the commissioners cannot be removed.

Bowers said Sanford has cooperated with the Ethics investigation. He declined to say whether Sanford would allow his hearing to be public.

"We look forward to our opportunity to finally present our side of the case to the commission and get this matter resolved," Bowers said. "We believe that once all of the facts have been considered, it will once again confirm that this administration has been a good steward of tax dollars and public resources."

Hayden said his office will send a copy of the investigative report to Attorney General Henry McMaster. McMaster is a Republican candidate for governor. McMaster's office would decide whether to press criminal charges against Sanford. McMaster has said his office will not comment on the Ethics Commission report until it has decided whether any evidence of criminal action exists.

Sanford, a self-proclaimed champion of open government, has objected to the report's public release in court, arguing it could undermine his defense. The S.C. Supreme Court ruled Nov. 5 that the State Ethics Commission could make the report public, but House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, has asked the court to clarify its ruling. That decision is not expected until next week.

This week House lawmakers introduced an impeachment resolution against Sanford for abandoning his duties in June. The House leadership is waiting to see the investigative report before moving forward with impeachment.

State Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington and a long-time Sanford critic, said the Ethics Commission decision increases pressure on the House to begin the impeachment process.

Harrell said, as of Tuesday, he did not think there was enough evidence to remove Sanford from office, and some members have been frustrated that the House has yet to open its investigation.

"It needs to come to the floor of the House for a vote," Knotts said. "I think South Carolina needs to know what they got."

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