Opinion

Sanford transparency rule: Do as I preach, not as I do

BEING A HYPOCRITE is not (or at least should not be) an impeachable offense. And it almost seems like piling on to note that Gov. Mark Sanford has demonstrated himself to be a first-rate hypocrite.

Almost, but not entirely. There are times when the dead horse needs to be beaten, for the historic record, and to clearly articulate what is and is not acceptable behavior for future horses. This is such an occasion.

We're not talking about using the state plane to ferry his family on vacation, or lounging in the pricey seats while his staff flies coach; Mr. Sanford has his "contextual" explanations for those actions that are not entirely without merit, even if he himself would scoff at anyone who gave similar explanations. If he has in fact spent less tax money than his predecessors on travel, that would not absolve him of violating provisions of the State Ethics Act, which normally would draw fines or reprimands, but it's a legitimate point to make in the court of public opinion - or impeachment proceedings.

There is no similar bye, though, for the way Mr. Sanford has reversed positions on transparency in government. Whether it's the ethics law or state spending or the legislative process, Mark Sanford has portrayed himself as Mr. Transparency. It was disturbing enough that he took so long to agree to authorize an "open" investigation into his possible violations of state ethics laws, which (theoretically) removes the veil of secrecy that normally shrouds such probes.

But he had barely gotten around to signing off on that before he trotted out his lawyer to threaten to take the Ethics Commission to court if it actually attempts to conduct a transparent investigation.

On the basis of what appears to be little more than his own paranoia, or legal strategy, the governor called a news conference the other week for the purpose of denouncing what he termed efforts by House leaders to get the Ethics Commission to release a preliminary report that contained only the case against him, without his side of the story. The Ethics Commission, which at the time had been trying unsuccessfully for nearly two weeks to get the governor to turn over the documents and narrative that constitute the foundation of Mr. Sanford's side of the story, flatly refuted the claim. (So did House leaders.)

All this makes a mockery not just of Mr. Sanford's claim that he had authorized a transparent ethics investigation but also of every claim he has ever made about supporting tough ethics laws and giving voters the opportunity to see what their government is doing, so they can pass judgment on that government.

Meantime, the governor's office has taken to dragging its feet and charging inflated prices to produce public documents. Some prices quoted are so high that news organizations have had to forego some reviews. The office charged more than $1,000 to produce three months' worth of e-mails from the governor's chief of staff, and made the absurd claim that another staffer's e-mails didn't have to be disclosed because he no longer works there. Freedom of Information requests are being processed slowly while his legal staff digs through archives and reviews "comparative" data on the travel of previous governors and university presidents - work that we are not at all convinced should be done by taxpayer-funded attorneys to begin with, and particularly not when it delays doing what clearly is their job.

We've never been fans of the fishing expeditions, where opponents comb through every imaginable public document in hopes of unearthing something damaging about the incumbent, and the reviews since Mr. Sanford was forced to admit he had abandoned the state to visit his Argentine mistress are a close relative to those. But the fact is that state law allows those searches, and the documents are supposed to be provided for free, or at the lowest cost possible. That's because government documents belong to the public - not to the officials who created them. That's not just our view, and it's not just the law: Up until the past couple of months, it also was the opinion of Mark Sanford, stated frequently and forcefully. But that was back when it was other people whose records were being reviewed.

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