South Carolina ethics panel charges Sanford

Accusations may boost efforts to impeach governor

UNDER SCRUTINY South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford faces civil charges that carry a maximum $74,000 in fines. UNDER SCRUTINY
South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford faces civil charges that carry a maximum $74,000 in fines.
By Jim Davenport
Associated Press / November 24, 2009

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COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, whose tryst with an Argentine lover became a wide-ranging scandal this summer, has been accused of breaking ethics laws by using taxpayer money for pricey airline seats, taking state planes for personal and political trips, and improperly using campaign funds.

The details of ethics complaints against the second-term Republican governor were released yesterday by the state Ethics Commission.

Sanford has been under scrutiny since he vanished for five days over the summer, reappearing to tearfully admit to an extramarital affair with a woman he later called his “soul mate.’’

The civil charges, which carry a maximum $74,000 in fines, stem from a three-month investigation by the Ethics Commission and could be pivotal in a push by some lawmakers to remove him from office. The state attorney general is deciding whether the governor will face any criminal charges.

The ethics charges include 18 instances in which Sanford is accused of improperly buying first- and business-class airline tickets, violating state law requiring lowest-cost travel; nine instances of improperly using state-owned aircraft for travel to political and personal events, including a stop at a discount hair salon; and 10 instances of improperly reimbursing himself with campaign cash.

The alleged travel violations were first reported in a series of Associated Press stories. Some of the allegations about Sanford’s use of campaign funds were revealed by The State newspaper in Columbia.

Sanford’s attorney yesterday characterized the allegations leveled by the panel as “technical questions.’’

“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,’’ lawyer Butch Bowers said.

Each of the counts asserts Sanford used his office for personal financial gain and carries a maximum $2,000 fine if he is found guilty.

Sanford’s attorneys have said they look forward to defending against the charges at an ethics panel hearing early next year. They also confirmed that Sanford - as the state investigation was being conducted - added disclosures of his private plane flights to his ethics forms.

Among the mistakes the ethics commission says the governor made were his:

■ Approval of the purchase of four first- and business-class commercial airline tickets for a June 2008 trip during which he met with his mistress in Argentina.

■ Personal use of state-owned aircraft for trips such as the birthday party of a campaign contributor in Aiken, and flying from Myrtle Beach to Columbia for a “personal event,’’ including a haircut.

■ Reimbursing himself nearly $3,000 using campaign contributions, including about $900 for expenses to attend a Republican Governors Association meeting in Miami and a hunting trip in Ireland several days later.

The charges involve actions only since 2005 - about halfway through Sanford’s first term - because the commission’s authority to review issues is limited to a four-year span.

For months, Sanford has insisted he did nothing wrong and served as a better steward of the taxpayer dollar than his predecessors.

But the former congressman’s penchant for riling fellow Republicans who control the Legislature has left him with few allies since the startling June news conference during which he admitted to the affair.

Four GOP lawmakers already have filed a resolution that would force Sanford from office because of “dereliction of duty,’’ and the travel allegations play no part in that move.

Their measure deals solely with Sanford’s absence from the state, when he led his staff to believe he was hiking the Appalachian Trail while he was in Argentina.

A committee that will consider that measure is scheduled to meet for the first time today.

Sanford has brushed off repeated calls from his own party to step down and in the past month scored a political victory by helping land a Boeing Co. assembly plant that is expected to bring thousands of jobs to North Charleston.