Politics & Government

High court prods panel in Sanford ethics case

The S.C. Supreme Court has asked a state ethics panel to submit arguments by noon Monday on whether it can release a preliminary investigation of Gov. Mark Sanford to lawmakers.

Sanford asked the court to intervene Wednesday, arguing that if the State Ethics Commission releases the report, it could be used against him politically or undermine the governor's ability to defend himself. Sanford's attorneys will have until noon Tuesday to respond to the Ethics Commission arguments.

According to state law, Sanford's attorneys argued, only prosecutors may see the preliminary report. State Ethics Commission executive director Herbert Hayden said their attorneys think that if the House of Representatives began impeachment proceedings, it would become a prosecutor and would be eligible to receive the report.

Lawmakers have pledged to file an impeachment resolution against Sanford when they return to Columbia in January, arguing that the governor abandoned his duties during a secret five-day trip to Argentina in June. Sanford later admitted an extramarital affair.

Efforts Thursday to reach Hayden were unsuccessful, but Hayden said Wednesday he welcomed the state Supreme Court settling the issue.

Sanford attorney Butch Bowers declined to comment.

The Supreme Court's request for additional arguments is no guarantee the court ultimately will intervene and decide the case. The state's highest court could reject the case.

Sanford has been fending 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.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said the House has a right to get the report because impeachment begins in the lower chamber.

"It seems to me that the Ethics Commission's charge is to give the investigative report to the entities that would be most appropriate to deal with that report, and the South Carolina House of Representatives is the only entity that would deal with this report in this manner," Harrell said.

Harrell said no decision has been made about the House getting involved in the state Supreme Court case.