Ethics panel accuses S.C. governor of 37 violations

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina Ethics Commission has
charged Gov. Mark Sanford with breaking state ethics laws 37 times, including
using state planes for family trips, spending campaign funds on a hunting trip
and flying first class, instead of coach, while on state travel.

The commission, which last week wrapped up its preliminary,
three-month-long investigation into allegations against the embattled governor,
released the charges to the public Monday.

The commission’s findings have been eagerly awaited by
legislators, who are deciding whether to oust Sanford from office before his
term ends in January 2011.

A subcommittee of the S.C. House will consider an
impeachment resolution for the first time Tuesday.

The Ethics Commission charges allege:

— Sanford flew business or first class 18 times between 2005
and 2009 while on state business. Those trips included travel to Europe, Asia
and South America. State law requires officials to choose the most economical
fare unless there is an urgent reason to do otherwise.

— Sanford used state aircraft for personal travel nine times
between 2005 and 2008, including a book signing, a birthday party for a
contributor, a son’s sporting event and a family getaway to Georgia.

— On 10 occasions, Sanford took money from his campaign
account, donated by supporters, and improperly spent it on personal uses,
including an Irish hunting trip and a GOP governors meeting in Miami. The money
in question, a total of $2,940.68, was spent between 2006 and 2009.

Sanford was cleared by the commission for failing to report
private plane trips given to him by friends and political allies. Sanford’s
attorney told the commission the governor will disclose all of the trips.
“With this amendment … Gov. Sanford will have complied, albeit late,
with the filing requirements” of state law, the commission said.

The charges against Sanford will be aired at a hearing of a
three-member Ethics Commission panel, to be held sometime in January.

During that hearing, Sanford’s attorneys will mount his
defense.

The governor’s lawyers have characterized the accusations as
technical and minor.

Sanford’s attorney, Butch Bowers, said Monday: “We are
confident that we will be able to address each of these questions, none of
which constitutes findings of guilt and none of which we believe rise anywhere
near to the traditional standard of impeachment. We look forward to working
with the commission and resolving this matter.”

Ultimately, the commissioners — appointed by Sanford but
confirmed by the state Senate — will vote whether Sanford is guilty of the
ethics violations. Sanford could be cleared or fined up to $74,000.

Sanford also could face criminal charges.

A spokesman said Monday that S.C. Attorney general Henry
McMaster is reviewing the Ethics Commission report to determine whether charges
are warranted.

The governor faces trouble on another front as well.

Tuesday, a subcommittee of House lawmakers will hold their
first meeting to discuss impeaching the governor.

Four House members introduced a bill last week to oust the
governor from office, saying he abandoned the state for five days in June to
secretly visit his lover in Argentina.

Abandoning his duties is grounds for impeachment, no matter
the ethics charges, state Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, S.C., said Monday.

“What matters to me,” Delleney said, “is his
absence from the state without giving anyone notice and being AWOL for five
days, leaving no established chain of command or protocol for the exercise of
the executive authority of the state and his preconceived deceit and cover-up
of his whereabouts using his staff, who are state employees, to mislead public
officials of South Carolina and the public of South Carolina. That, coupled
with the shame and disgrace he brought to the reputation of South Carolina.”

Sanford has brushed off calls to resign from GOP House
members and senators, who control the Legislature, saying he has not broken any
laws and has been a good steward of taxpayer money.

Four of the first- or business- class flights cited by the
Ethics Commission involved a 2008 state Commerce Department trip to Brazil.

Sanford, a married, two-term governor, asked that the
economic development trip be extended to include Argentina, where he saw his
lover.

The governor has reimbursed the state $3,300 for the
Argentina part of the trip. He has said he spent no other tax money to see his
lover, whom he first met in 2001 at an open air dance spot in Uruguay and has
called his “soul mate.”

The governor’s defenders also have said previous governors
flew first-class on the state’s dime. However, the commission says two of those
governors used private money to pay for more expensive tickets.

In the Ethics Commission report released Monday, the state
Commerce Department was cited as saying it is a long-held practice that top
state officials fly business-class on international trips so they can arrive
rested.

But the commission fired back that, in many instances,
Sanford had a day to recover before any meetings. He also flew business-class
to return to Columbia.

Sanford’s defenders also have said the state Comptroller
General’s office signed off on the tickets and the Legislative Audit Council
never objected to them.

However, the Ethics Commission said the comptroller’s office
did “not second guess” decisions, instead paying “the bills
which are submitted.” The Audit Council told the commission it did not
look into airfares.

The Ethics Commission also charges Sanford misused state
aircraft to fly to political events, including an Anderson County (S.C.) GOP
dinner, a Republican House caucus reception in Greenville, S.C., and the Aiken,
S.C., birthday party of a campaign contributor.

The commission also cited a number of flights on state
planes as personal, violating state law, including:

— A 2006 flight from North Myrtle Beach to Columbia, after
which Sanford got a haircut

— A 2006 trip by Sanford and his family to Georgia from West
Virginia for a “personal weekend”

— A 2007 flight from North Myrtle Beach to Columbia for
Sanford to attend a son’s sporting event

— A 2008 flight to Myrtle Beach — with his wife and son —
for the opening of the Hard Rock Park entertainment complex

Sanford has denied using state aircraft for personal
reasons. For example, he said he gets his hair cut at a discount chain that
does not accept reservations, meaning he had no reason to fly back to Columbia
for a trim.

The commission also charges that on 10 occasions, Sanford
reimbursed himself for personal expenses out of campaigns money.

These reimbursements violate state ethics law because they
were not related to Sanford’s campaign or duties as governor, the commission
said.

Also, Sanford failed to provide receipts for the expenses.
Ethics rules require a campaign to keep receipts dating back five years.

The expenses include $864.90 for a 2008 Republican governors
meeting in Miami and a hunting trip to Dublin, Ireland.

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What’s Next?

A South Carolina House panel will hold a hearing at 1 p.m.
EST Tuesday on a resolution to impeach Gov. Mark Sanford. The Judiciary
subcommittee will meet in Room 101 of the Blatt Building. The meeting is open
to the public.

Impeachment: The impeachment resolution seeks to remove the
two-term Republican governor, who cannot run for re-election again, for
disappearing from the state for five days in June. The married governor
subsequently said he had been in Argentina, visiting his lover.

The subcommittee hopes to finish its work by Christmas. Its
recommendation then would go to the full House Judiciary Committee. If that
committee votes to impeach Sanford, the resolution would go to the full House.
If the House passes the resolution, it would go to the S.C. Senate, which would
try Sanford. If convicted, he would be removed from office.

However, impeachment is unlikely to get that far. House
Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said last week he did not think there were
sufficient grounds — known then — to remove fellow Republican Sanford.
Democrats also are divided over Sanford’s fate.

Ethics charges: A panel of the State Ethics Commission will
hear charges against Sanford for three dozen possible ethics violations, which
carry a possible fine of $74,000.

That hearing will be held early next year. However, no date
has been set. Sanford could appeal any unfavorable decision by the three-member
panel to the full commission.

Wild card: S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, a
Republican who is running to succeed Sanford as governor, is investigating and,
if he thinks it is warranted, could bring criminal charges.

Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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