How Sanford avoided impeachment

Public's uncertainty, solid legal strategy aided governor

12/20/2009 12:00 AM

03/25/2010 11:53 PM

Impeachment is dead.

Gov. Mark Sanford survived the threat largely because of a sound legal strategy and splintered opinion - among both lawmakers and the public - over whether the two-term Republican's actions merited his removal from office.

Last week, a South Carolina House committee officially killed a bid to impeach Sanford, instead endorsing a censure resolution. It expresses the General Assembly's disapproval of Sanford's "dereliction of duty" and "official misconduct."

In June, the governor admitted an extramarital affair after taking a secret, five-day trip to Argentina to see his lover. Subsequent media investigations of the governor's travel showed Sanford also saw his lover on a state-funded 2008 trade mission.

Lawmakers mostly limited their debate over Sanford's fate to those two events, deciding, ultimately, that they were not the "serious misconduct" required to remove a governor from office.

But other factors helped Sanford escape impeachment as well.

The looming 2010 governor's race weighed heavily on lawmakers' decision-making. First lady Jenny Sanford, who filed for divorce earlier this month, also stuck up for her estranged husband when he needed her most.

Timing was on Sanford's side, too.

When Sanford disappeared - only to surface five days later and reveal his shocking secret - the Legislature had, just days before, wrapped up its session.

Lawmakers spent much of the summer saying a House impeachment vote could not be held until 2010 because of legislative rules.

Yet, at one point, South Carolina's political leadership was near unanimous in calling for Sanford to resign, and momentum for impeachment appeared to be building.

But Sanford never wavered. He would not quit, he said repeatedly. He would serve out his term.

Here's how he won.

JENNY'S DEFENSE

First lady Jenny Sanford has been getting high marks for refusing to play the role of supportive but jilted political spouse.

But as painful details of Mark Sanford's extramarital affair first became public, Jenny Sanford stood by her man when it counted most.

Two days after The Associated Press published an interview in which Gov. Sanford called Argentine Maria Belen Chapur his "soul mate" and admitted to "crossing lines" with other women, the calls for Sanford to resign were almost deafening.

U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., while not demanding a resignation, suggested Sanford "do the right thing" for the state. A majority of fellow Republicans in the S.C. Senate - the body that would sit as a jury deciding whether to remove Sanford from office if the House impeached him - had called for Sanford to resign.

With Sanford talking about other women and characterizing his extramarital affair as a "tragic love story," even friends were questioning whether Sanford had lost it and should resign.

Jenny Sanford privately began calling lawmakers on the governor's behalf. The calls were "a lifeline" to her estranged husband, according to some of the Republicans who asked Sanford to resign.

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, a former Sanford chief of staff and longtime friend, said Jenny Sanford assured him that her husband could serve out his second term and deal with family issues at the same time.

Jenny Sanford then released a public statement that helped stem the tide against Gov. Sanford, saying she would forgive the governor.

She also left the door open for reconciliation.

The Sanford family went on two vacations over the next six weeks, including a two-week trip to Europe. Jenny and Mark Sanford also took a five-day, out-of-state trip aimed at reconciliation.

Ultimately, that effort failed.

In August, Jenny Sanford moved out of the Governor's Mansion, taking the couple's four sons to live with her at their Sullivan's Island beach home.

But by the time Jenny Sanford moved out, Gov. Sanford was far less vulnerable.

Also, a strategy for taking the fight to his critics was in place. And the governor had found his voice in defending himself.

2010 GOVERNOR'S RACE

Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer stood before the cameras in August and offered S.C. lawmakers a deal: Impeach Mark Sanford. I'll finish out his term and promise not to run for governor next year.

Lawmakers didn't accept the agreement. Most didn't even take it seriously.

Bauer, the 40-year-old underdog of S.C. politics who has built a reputation on constituent services, has as much to do with lawmakers' decision not to impeach as Sanford himself.

Quietly, some lawmakers worried that ousting Sanford would give Bauer an unfair fundraising advantage in the 2010 governor's race, as well as on-the-job training.

"Bauer is a runoff winner. I know," state Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, told The State in August. Thomas ran for lieutenant governor in 2002, losing to Bauer in a runoff.

"They don't want him to have a leg up," Thomas said of his fellow legislators, who were weighing removing Sanford and elevating Bauer to governor.

Besides Bauer, four other Republicans are seeking their party's gubernatorial nomination, and many inside the State House already have taken sides, backing another GOP candidate.

After seven years as his rhetorical punching bag, most members of the GOP-controlled Legislature do not like fellow Republican Sanford. But many don't trust Bauer, also a Republican.

Bauer's opponents say he isn't mature enough to handle the governor's job.

South Carolinians clearly have doubts.

A recent survey of S.C. voters showed 43 percent of those polled had a negative view of Bauer.

Democratic lawmakers deny the 2010 race influenced their stand on impeachment.

But political observers note Democrats stand to gain by keeping Sanford in office and running against his morals and administration.

THE RIGHT MOVES

Sanford spent nearly two months taking daily lumps from the media and watching political opponents plot his ouster before taking his crucial first step toward saving his job - fighting back.

Armed with a dossier on past administrations' use of state planes and business-class airfare, Sanford showed up in late August outside the Greenville law office of Sen. Thomas, who was leading his own investigation of the governor at the time.

There, Sanford challenged Thomas' contention that he had broken the law.

Sanford claimed he only had done what others had done, flying on state aircraft and traveling first class.

It was a crude defense that wrecked his image as a maverick reformer.

But it also worked.

Sanford also benefited from a hasty SLED probe of his travel that concluded the governor had broken no laws.

Later, Sanford took to characterizing the allegations against him as only technical and minor.

Sanford's other strategy - to resist calls to resign and stretch out the legal process - also worked. The longer Sanford stood and fought, the more his chances of hanging on to office improved as his second term wound to a close.

A key decision was to challenge a state Ethics Commission investigation in court, particularly the commission's plan to release a preliminary report to lawmakers.

Sanford objected to that plan to the S.C. Supreme Court. There, Sanford lost - when justices ruled Sanford had waived his right to privacy and admonished the governor for stalling the process through a legal "four-corner" offense - but tallied a more important strategic win as well.

Sanford's suit persuaded the gun-shy Ethics Commission to keep its conclusions secret until a second court ruling. Sanford's attorneys then spent five days calling the still-secret charges against the governor "minor" and "technical" before the public had a chance to review the allegations.

As Sanford's chief antagonist, state Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, said to the governor's lawyers Dec. 9: Congratulations, you have defended the indefensible.

But other impeachment panel members said the evidence was not clear-cut. Sanford's attorney convinced others that impeachment was unjustified.

"We won because the facts and the law supported the governor's behavior," said Kevin Hall, one of a team of attorneys who worked for Sanford.

NO PUBLIC OUTCRY

Sanford also was able to resist impeachment because the public largely failed to rally for his removal.

While politicians called for Sanford to resign and many thought his actions merited impeachment, the public was never sold on removing the man who they twice had elected.

Polling never showed a time when a majority of S.C. voters thought Sanford should be removed from office.

A poll taken immediately after Sanford admitted his affair showed 46 percent of those surveyed thought Sanford should resign. Only 40 percent thought he should be impeached.

As the scandal raged on through the summer, only 60 people turned up at a State House rally calling for Sanford's impeachment.

By early December, a Rasmussen Reports poll showed only 36 percent of respondents thought Sanford should be impeached; 49 percent said he should not. In that same poll, respondents were nearly evenly split on whether Sanford should resign - 42 percent saying he should voluntarily step down, and 41 percent saying he should not.

In mid-December, with Sanford's fate in the hands of lawmakers, a Public Policy Polling survey found 58 percent thought Sanford should not be impeached. In that poll, 47 percent said the governor should finish out his term, which ends in January 2011, while 45 percent said he should resign.

A TIMID IMPEACHMENT

Ken Starr they were not.

House lawmakers considering Sanford's impeachment pursued the matter with something less than the ferocity of the special prosecutor assigned to investigate former President Bill Clinton.

Why did the S.C. House impeachment panel not push harder?

Some say necessity - the panel had limited staff to investigate and reams of records to review. Others say the committee reflected the will of House leaders who did not want to press the impeachment issue.

The House panel did not subpoena witnesses, choosing to rely largely on voluntary testimony and public records. The panel also met only four times, once for only 30 minutes, before voting impeachment down.

Major questions - who contacted Sanford in Argentina to tell him that his hiking-the-Appalachian-Trail story had blown up? - were left unasked. The panel also threw out most of the S.C. Ethics Commission case against the governor.

House Judiciary Committee chairman Jim Harrison, R-Richland, said the panel did not have the ability to explore every "rabbit hole" and had to focus on the core issues.

There, Harrison said, most everyone agreed to the central facts.

Sanford secretly left his post for five days in June to travel to Argentina. He might have been gone for 10 days had questions not been raised publicly about his whereabouts.

Also, Sanford saw his lover on a taxpayer-funded trade trip to Argentina a year earlier that yielded no benefit to the state. Panelists, including Harrison, said they thought Sanford arranged that trade trip -for which he reimbursed the state more than $3,000 a year later - to carry on his extramarital affair.

The only question, Harrison and others said, was whether those two incidents qualified as "serious misconduct," required for impeachment by the state Constitution.

No, said most impeachment panel and House Judiciary Committee members.

Others, including Lt. Gov. Bauer and ally state Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, grumble the process was fixed from the start. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, poured cold water on the evidence before the impeachment panel's first meeting by saying he had heard nothing that merited Sanford's removal, they say.

Last week, state Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, argued the public had the perception the House could not - or did not want to - handle impeachment.

"We will talk about fishing bills, and hooks, and striped bass for longer than we will talk about (impeachment)," Rutherford said.

But most lawmakers agreed Sanford had not committed an impeachable offense, waving off many of the pending 37 State Ethics Commission charges against Sanford.

Sanford will face those charges in January.

If convicted, the multimillionaire governor could be fined $74,000.

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