Panel votes to censure Sanford, but against impeachment

12/10/2009 12:00 AM

12/10/2009 1:37 PM

House lawmakers Wednesday rejected a measure to impeach Gov. Mark Sanford, making it unlikely the governor will be removed from office.

However, the special House impeachment panel approved an official rebuke - or censure - of Sanford for bringing "ridicule, dishonor, disgrace and shame" on the state, its citizens and the governor's office.

Sanford has been under scrutiny since June, when he returned from a clandestine five-day trip to Argentina and admitted an extramarital affair. Media, the State Ethics Commission and lawmakers have spent the past six months reviewing Sanford's use of state aircraft, business-class airfare and campaign funds.

Wednesday, the governor said 37 pending State Ethics Commission charges amounted to - at most - minor and technical oversights.

While Sanford's offenses were called "seriously stupid" - the words of state Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville - six of the seven impeachment panel members agreed they were not impeachable.

"We can't impeach for hypocrisy. We can't impeach for arrogance. We can't impeach ... for his lack of leadership skills," said committee chairman state Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, arguing there were not grounds to remove Sanford from office.

In Charleston, Sanford thanked the panel for its work and pledged to finish strong before leaving office in January 2011, citing recent announcements by big employers - including Boeing and Crane - that they would create thousands of jobs in South Carolina.

"These last five to six months have been tough for everyone involved," he said, according to The (Charleston) Post and Courier. "There were days in the last five months when I could barely get out of bed."

In a separate written statement, Sanford said he believed the Ethics Commission would dismiss the charges against him.

"What has been suggested with regard to supposedly not watching out for the taxpayer was just not correct," Sanford wrote, "and that if there had been any oversight, it was minor and technical in nature."

Working mainly from public documents, news reports and voluntary written statements, the House committee did not invoke its subpoena power to call witnesses or speak directly with Sanford.

Only state Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, voted in favor of the impeachment resolution he co-sponsored. Delleney attacked Sanford's conduct, saying he had abandoned and forsaken his office and state when he left for Argentina, adding his conduct was indefensible.

Impeachment is a political process, Delleney said, and lawmakers determine whether a governor's conduct reaches the standard of "serious" misconduct or crimes required for removal by the state Constitution.

"He has lost all moral authority to lead this state," Delleney said. "He has lost all trust. He has lost all respect. ... He has no ability to lead this state."

But the impeachment panel's six other lawmakers disagreed, worrying that to impeach Sanford on the grounds cited would lower the high standard required to remove someone from office. Many sided with arguments by Sanford's team of attorneys, who noted the only two governors recently removed from office had been indicted for felonies.

Most previously had called for Sanford to resign.

But state Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter, said lawmakers should be leery of essentially overturning the results of Sanford's 2006 reelection with impeachment.

"We need to be real careful how we open that door," Weeks said.

One lawmaker, state Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Berkeley, broke down talking about the state's "six months of national humiliation" while reading her statement. She later said she was affected by how Sanford's family has been impacted by the impeachment hearings.

"There's not as much focus on the personal pain that brought about this situation," Horne said.

Democrats chided Sanford and House and Senate Republicans for failing to lead despite being the state's dominant political party.

"Governor Sanford certainly deserved the stinging rebuke he got from the House subcommittee," S.C. Democratic Party chairwoman Carol Fowler said in a statement. "Neither he nor the Republicans in the House and Senate seem able to do anything to move this state forward. South Carolinians have long since given up on Sanford's failed governorship; the best we can hope for is that he won't cause our state any more embarrassment."

While Wednesday's vote was a clear victory for Sanford, he still faces potential punishment.

Attorney General Henry McMaster is weighing whether to press criminal charges or hand the matter off to a local or federal prosecutor.

Sanford also faces a January State Ethics Commission hearing on 37 ethics charges that could carry up to $74,000 in fines.

The full Judiciary Committee also could revive the impeachment bill when it votes on it next Wednesday. But Delleney admitted it was a long shot.

"It will be difficult, but I'm not giving up," he said. "This is a political process. The political will is just not here.

"I'm prepared to accept the consequences," he added, saying he did not know how fellow lawmakers will react to his continued push for impeachment.

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