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Did Sanford's affair in Argentina break the law?

The details of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's secretive trips to visit his lover in South America aren't just headline fodder or political kryptonite.
/ Source: The Associated Press

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford admits he used bad judgment when he secretly visited his mistress during a state-funded trip to Argentina last year. But did he break the law?

As calls mounted for a criminal probe of the trade mission, a spokeswoman for the state's law enforcement division said it doesn't appear Sanford did anything illegal.

Spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said the information provided so far indicates Sanford met his mistress on private time during a legitimate business trip.

"Perhaps his judgment was clouded, but he did not have criminal intent," Timmons said Saturday. "The situation would be completely different if he'd asked Commerce to set up the trip to Argentina with the sole intent to set up an extramarital affair."

Sanford and his wife Jenny, who a day earlier said she was headed out of town for the weekend with their children, answered the door of their Sullivans Island home Saturday evening. The scent of dinner was in the air and they declined to speak with a reporter.

Tearful press conference
After going missing for days, the married father of four admitted Wednesday he'd been back in Argentina to see a woman with whom he has been having a yearlong affair. His staff had said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

In a tearful, rambling press conference, the two-term Republican asked for forgiveness and explained that a long friendship with the woman had blossomed into romance a year ago, around the time of the trade mission, when he saw her in Buenos Aires.

On Thursday, Sanford agreed to reimburse the state for part of the more-than $8,000 tab. Exactly how much he needs to pay back has not yet been determined, Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said Saturday.

The state Commerce Department says the trip itinerary originally included only Brazil, but the governor later asked for economic development meetings in Argentina.

Democrats seek inquiry
State Democratic Party leader Carol Fowler called Saturday for legislative leaders to set up a bipartisan committee to investigate and criticized law enforcement, particularly the attorney general, for not launching a probe. Others calling for a criminal investigation include Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia, and government watchdog groups.

"Mark Sanford abandoned his official duties, deceived the public and misled the family. He has even admitted to using public funds to support his extramarital affair," she said. "But in spite of 10 days of full national humiliation, South Carolinians still don't know the whole truth. Is Mark Sanford simply an irresponsible public official or guilty of something criminal?"

Timmons said the State Law Enforcement Division is considering requests for a probe, but Attorney General Henry McMaster, who is expected to run for governor himself, has not committed to one, instead saying he will take his cue from state law enforcement.

"The only thing Attorney General McMaster has refused to do is act in a reckless and politically motivated fashion," his spokesman, Mark Plowden, said Saturday.

Sawyer declined to comment on Fowler's request, and Republicans accused her of playing politics. Sawyer did say, "The governor has owned up to the mistakes he's made and he's apologized for them. He's going to spend the next 18 months looking forward, not backward."

‘Why waste public money’
An investigation by state lawmakers would be premature, said Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell.

A photographic retrospective of embarrassing episodes.

"This is being sufficiently vetted out by the media and his admissions," said McConnell, R-Charleston. "Why waste public money on doing the same thing? An aggressive media is doing a good job of developing the facts."

If Sanford resigns or if forced to step down, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer would take his place. Sanford has given no indication he intends to resign.

"None of the other candidates want to see Andre Bauer have a year and a half auditioning as governor," said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University.

Meanwhile, Jenny Sanford, who told The Associated Press she learned of the affair in January when she stumbled across a letter from Sanford to his mistress, has been living at the couple's beach home in Sullivans Island while the governor stays at his official residence in Columbia.

Mark Sanford's mother, Margaret, said Saturday she is praying for her son.

"I love him and support him," Sanford, 83, told The Associated Press while sitting on a wooden picnic bench overlooking the Coosaw River outside her home in Beaufort. "I love him and I pray for him."

Margaret Sanford said she had just returned from Columbia but would not say whether she spent time with her son or say much beyond acknowledging that the two have spoken since the scandal broke.

"I just say I love you and that's it," she said.