WE NEVER HAVE been convinced that Gov. Mark Sanford's summer disappearing act constituted sufficient grounds for impeachment; nor are we convinced at this point that the ethics charges released this week rise to that level either.
But while they do not involve - or even hint at - public corruption, the charges most definitely do not, as his attorney insists, involve mere "technical" violations of the law. Forgetting to sign your tax return is a technical violation of the law; using state resources for personal benefit is a substantive violation of the law.
That means we cannot dismiss the idea that Mr. Sanford should face criminal prosecution.
Unfortunately, there is no clear answer: On the one hand, giving a pass to a high-profile person sends a message to the public that the law doesn't matter, and that is something we do at our own peril. On the other hand, our primary concern in this case must be what's best for the state of South Carolina, not whether an individual gets the punishment he may well deserve.
Even more unfortunately, the decision as to whether to prosecute the governor falls on one of the people campaigning to succeed him, Attorney General Henry McMaster, who faces tremendous political pressures on both sides: If Mr. Sanford is forced from office, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer would be forced into the office, which could give him a tremendous advantage in his own campaign for governor; that would make it tempting for Mr. McMaster to go out of his way to avoid a prosecution. But if he doesn't prosecute, the attorney general will be accused of allowing his own political ambitions to trump his official duties; that would make it tempting to go out of his way to bring criminal charges.
The one fortunate fact is that there's a simple way around this conflict: Mr. McMaster can appoint a special prosecutor to review the report of the State Ethics Commission, decide whether to bring criminal charges and, if the answer is yes, do so.
That is what he needs to do. The most important reason to do this is to ensure public confidence in whatever decision is reached, and so the attorney general needs to make it clear to whomever he appoints - and it doesn't have to be one of the 16 circuit solicitors, although that's who we usually think of - that a decision must be reached quickly and that it must be thoroughly and adequately explained to the public.
Mr. McMaster argues that once an attorney general decides to run for governor, nearly all of the cases that come before him have the potential to create a conflict between his duties as chief prosecutor and his political ambitions; to hand such a difficult case off to someone else, he says, would be shirking his duties.
We admire his determination to do his job, but it simply is not the case that recusal equals cop-out. It is not at all uncommon for public officials to recuse themselves from decisions that pose an actual or apparent conflict of interest; Mr. McMaster has done it himself in far less significant cases.
A public official who is constantly having to excuse himself from doing his duties does indeed raise questions as to his fitness for the job, but Mr. McMaster is not in that category. And one can hardly consider the possible criminal indictment of a governor to be a routine matter. The mistake would be to pretend that there is no conflict here. There is. Mr. McMaster must acknowledge that and turn this case over to a special prosecutor.