Politics & Government

Governor: Don't release ethics report

Gov. Mark Sanford has asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to block a state ethics panel investigating the governor from releasing its initial findings to lawmakers who could decide to remove him from office.

Sanford, who vowed to fight "tooth and nail" any effort to remove him from office, argues that releasing the report to lawmakers could be used for political purposes and could compromise his defense.

Sanford argues that only prosecutorial bodies can gain access to the State Ethics Commission's preliminary report, which is akin to an indictment and does not contain the governor's full defense.

The Ethics Commission maintains that the S.C. House would become a prosecutor, and therefore entitled to the report, if it opens impeachment proceedings against Sanford.

Sanford has been under scrutiny since returning from a secret five-day trip to Argentina in June and admitting to an extramarital affair with a woman who lives there.

Attorney General Henry McMaster asked the Ethics Commission to review Sanford's use of state and private planes, his purchase of business-class airfare and his use of campaign funds.

In the court filing, Sanford attorney Butch Bowers argued that a secret investigation protects its results.

"In addition to preempting misuse, proceeding in confidence prevents the Commission from being subject to undue outside pressures in its decision-making process, precludes tampering with witnesses and evidence and encourages people with relevant information to speak freely," Sanford's court filing says. "All of these safeguards are put at risk if the confidence of an ethics investigation is jeopardized.

"If the Ethics Commission does not abide by the law and impeachment ensues, the public may very well view the process as a kangaroo court in action."

Sanford asks the S.C. Supreme Court to block to report's release or to ask the nine-member Ethics Commission to decide the matter before the report is released. He had asked the commissioners to decide the matter, but was told the report would be finished before the commissioners could meet to vote on its release.

The filing also asks that the S.C. Supreme Court makes its decision as quickly as possible.

Ethics Commission executive director Herb Hayden said this is the first time the agency has investigated a governor and welcomed the state's highest court settling the issue.

"The question needs to be answered," Hayden said. "This is just speeding up the process, getting it to the top instead of starting it at the bottom."

The court filing is the latest effort in Sanford's attempt to fend off calls for his removal. The governor's office has spent time investigating the use of state planes by universities and past administrations. Sanford also has laid out his defense in e-mails to supporters as well as at civic meetings across the state.

In August, Sanford agreed to waive confidentiality surrounding the investigation in the "spirit of a fair and transparent process." But his waiver only allowed the Ethics Commission to acknowledge the investigation and its scope. Sanford also can allow a public hearing for testimony and evidence in his defense, but has yet to do so.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens and a Sanford critic, thinks the Ethics Commission is correct in concluding the House is entitled to the preliminary report.

"There is absolutely no question that the commission would be abiding by not only the letter but the intent of the law," Martin said.

Martin thinks Sanford is trying to delay the Ethics Commission probe.

"I think he's trying to buy time to force us into the legislative session," he said, acknowledging that the public might be less willing to support impeachment the longer the case wears on.

Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, said he is still preparing an impeachment resolution and does not need the Ethics Commission report.

"Impeachment is not a legal proceeding; impeachment is a political proceeding," Delleney said. "We don't need the courts at all. We're totally autonomous."

Delleney said Sanford committed "serious misconduct" - a constitutional standard for impeachment in South Carolina - when he left the state for five days, slipped his security and lied to staff about where he was.

"There's not anyone in the private sector or military that would keep their job," if they did what Sanford did, Delleney said.

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