SC lawmakers recommend formal reprimand of gov after nixing impeachment for tryst, travel

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

SC lawmakers nix impeachment, recommend rebuke

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford dodged impeachment Wednesday but was scolded by legislators for his travels to see a mistress in Argentina and his misuse of state planes.

A legislative panel voted down a measure to impeach the two-term Republican, opting instead to recommend a formal rebuke for bringing the state “ridicule, dishonor, disgrace and shame.”

“We can’t impeach for hypocrisy. We can’t impeach for arrogance. We can’t impeach an officeholder for his lack of leadership skills,” said Rep. James Harrison, a fellow Republican who headed the panel.

Most of the seven legislative committee members said the Republican should resign, though his affair, use of state planes and a 2008 taxpayer-funded trip to Argentina were not serious misconduct that merited a recommendation to remove him from office.

Sanford has been under scrutiny since June when he tearfully revealed a yearlong affair. Ensuing probes of his travel and campaign spending led to more than three dozen state ethics charges.

State Rep. Jenny Horne, a Republican, sobbed as she spoke of Sanford hurting his family. “I can only imagine the pain that they have endured and will continue to endure,” Horne said.

Sanford, whose second and final term ends in January 2011, continued to insist he’d done nothing out of step with the conduct of other governors. He said he planned to spend his remaining months in office focused on improving the state’s economy and added that his constituents had helped him persevere.

“There were days in the last five months when I could hardly get out of bed, I didn’t know exactly how you put the next step in front of the other, but it was their respective strength, their faith in me … that allowed me to get back up and put that next foot in front of the other. I want to thank them for that grace and that kindness,” he said.

Only eight U.S. governors have been removed by impeachment, and the only two removed in the last 80 years each faced criminal charges.

The outcome of Wednesday’s vote will be sent as a recommendation to a full House Judiciary panel, which will take up the censure recommendation and technically could revive an impeachment effort. However, that is unlikely given the margin of the vote.

Sanford also will be the subject of a State Ethics Commission hearing on 37 charges involving his use of state planes for personal and political trips, pricey commercial airline seats and campaign money and could face up to $74,000 in fines. The state attorney general is considering whether those accusations will lead to criminal charges.

Sanford’s potential ethical missteps were uncovered in part by a series of Associated Press investigations. Lawmakers have said the ethics issues shattered the image Sanford had cultivated as a penny-pinching steward of the state’s money.

What the governor may accomplish in the coming months is in doubt.

Even before the affair derailed potential 2012 presidential aspirations, Sanford forecast the final year of his term would be unremarkable. Long a critic of fellow Republicans who control the Legislature, he expended tremendous capital earlier in the year unsuccessfully trying to prevent lawmakers from accepting $700 million in federal stimulus money for state schools — battling the money in court and becoming nationally known as an anti-stimulus voice.

He left for Argentina soon after losing that fight, and the legislators debated how seriously to consider the governor’s five-day absence during which his staff was led to believe he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“We have a governor forsaking, abandoning, deserting his office. We have a premeditated, intentional act where he abandoned his office in the state,” said state Rep. Greg Delleney, a Republican who was the lone vote for impeachment. “He has lost all moral authority to lead this state.”

Lawmakers in their meetings also focused on a state-funded trip in 2008 during which the governor’s longtime friendship with Maria Belen Chapur turned physical. After he revealed the relationship this summer, Sanford reimbursed the state for part of the prior year’s trip. He’s maintained he traveled to Buenos Aires for economic development meetings following a dove hunting excursion elsewhere in that country and that the meeting with Chapur was an afterthought.

Critics contended Sanford steered the Commerce Department to get him to Buenos Aires to see Chapur and questioned how seriously any state business was taken while he was there.

“It was nothing but a ruse,” said state Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia.

But he added: “An impeachment proceeding will only add to the harm he has already done.”

Meanwhile, first lady Jenny Sanford was to appear on an ABC special Wednesday after being named one of Barbara Walters’ top 10 most fascinating people of the year. Jenny Sanford, a former Wall Street executive, moved herself and her four sons out of the governor’s residence in Columbia and now lives at the family’s coastal home. She has described the couple as separated.

The governor agreed his wife was fascinating.

“Indeed she is and she has been real grace under fire and I think has made a lot of people in this state and this country quite proud,” he said.

Associated Press writer Bruce Smith in Charleston contributed to this report.

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