Dispute between governor, ethics panel unnecessary

ONCE AGAIN, the courts are being asked to settle what is essentially a dispute between Gov. Mark Sanford and the Legislature. This time, it's over the stated intention of the State Ethics Commission to turn over its preliminary investigative report of Mr. Sanford's travel and expenditures to the House, to use as part of an expected impeachment effort.

Unlike previous court-refereed disputes (the governor's illegal refusal to request federal stimulus funds, the Legislature's unconstitutional practice of loading up bills with unrelated amendments), it's not clear which side is right this time. Our Supreme Court is obviously much more capable than we of sorting that out.

But it is likewise unclear that this even needs to be sorted out by the court.

This is what is clear: The ethics review and impeachment are entirely different processes - with entirely different standards and requirements. Although there is a legal element involved, impeachment is a political process.

If the Ethics Commission finds a pattern of violations of the law in the way the governor spent campaign funds and used state, private and commercial aircraft, it's possible that a respectable argument could be made that he committed the crime of misconduct in office; that almost certainly would rise to the level of an impeachable offense. But if the commission simply finds a scattering of violations that usually are handled with a reprimand or fine, that is not in itself automatically grounds for impeachment.

At the same time, if the commission finds he did not violate the law, that does not automatically shut the door on impeachment; many legislators believe that the fact that he left the country without telling anyone is grounds for impeachment.

Mr. Sanford's concern is that his attempt to fend off impeachment could be unfairly harmed by the release of a preliminary investigative report with staff recommendations and legal analysis but without a hearing in which he gets to refute the evidence and challenge the recommendations. But the fact is that even if the court determines that the commission has the legal authority to turn over its preliminary report to the House, the House does not need the staff analysis and recommendations.

Since impeachment does not require that any laws be broken, the only good reason for the House to wait for the Ethics Commission's preliminary findings is to get someone else to do the investigatory work - simply to compile the facts. (There is a legitimate reason for the House to wait to see the commission's ultimate decision, but if it chooses that course, there's no reason it would need any part of a preliminary report.)

The obvious solution, the one that ought to satisfy everyone's stated concerns, is for the governor to authorize the commission to turn over its facts: the flight records from agencies, expense reports, documentation for the governor's campaign expenditures, the governor's calendar, and so on. (We're not convinced that the law allows someone being investigated to pick and choose what will be made public, but the Ethics Commission seems to have taken the position that it does, so unless the court decides to take up that matter, there's no reason this approach couldn't work.)

Indications are that all the information the commission is compiling is public record, which the House could gather up itself. But why in the world would anyone want to spend precious tax dollars duplicating such ministerial efforts - particularly if, like the governor, you've spent the past six and a half years complaining about just that sort of wasteful redundancy?