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S.C. governor to face ethics charges, panel rules

A South Carolina ethics panel says  Gov. Mark Sanford should face charges he violated state laws tied to a three-month investigation into his travel and campaign finances.
Image: Mark Sanford
Questions about Gov. Mark Sanford's use of state, private and commercial planes arose after he disappeared from the state in June and admitted he had been in Argentina visiting his mistress. Mary Ann Chastain / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford will face charges he violated state laws, according to an ethics panel ruling Wednesday that came after its three-month investigation into his use of state, commercial and private airplanes and his campaign finance practices.

The State Ethics Commission did not provide details of its decision or the specific charges the governor would face during a hearing of the panel early next year. Sanford's lawyer, however, predicted the governor would be cleared and said none of charges are criminal but "limited to minor, technical matters."

The commission said details — which should include whether the accusations involve civil or criminal allegations — will be released next week. Questions about Sanford's use of state, private and commercial planes arose after he disappeared from the state in June and admitted he had been in Argentina visiting his mistress.

The commission "found probable cause exists on several allegations. They wanted me to point out that a finding of probable cause is not a finding of guilt. It is only one phase in the process," said Herb Hayden, the commission's executive director, after a daylong, closed-door meeting that is comparable to a grand jury hearing.

Impeachment effort
The outcome of the commission's work is pivotal for the once-popular conservative governor. Many lawmakers were waiting for it to decide if they will join an effort to impeach Sanford when the Legislature reconvenes in January. The governor repeatedly has rebuffed calls from fellow Republicans to resign before his second term ends in January 2011. State law prevents him from seeking a third.

The Associated Press found the governor violated bans on using state airplanes for personal and political purposes; opted for expensive first-class or business-class seats — actions that apparently violated rules requiring lowest-cost travel; and failed to disclose on ethics forms flights he took on private planes owned by donors and friends.

The State of Columbia newspaper also reported Sanford was reimbursed by his campaign for what may have been personal expenses.

"We feel vindicated that the Ethics Commission's finding of probable cause is limited to minor, technical matters that do not include any allegations of criminal conduct," Sanford lawyer Butch Bowers said. He said he looked forward "to our opportunity to finally present our side of the case to the commission and get this matter resolved."

The ethics hearing will allow Sanford to defend his conduct before a panel of three ethics commissioners. Commission staff acts as prosecutors.

Criminal charges?
While Bowers says there are no criminal charges, the commission is to give a copy of its report to Attorney General Henry McMaster, who had requested the probe in August following the AP reports. He can decide to pursue charges.

The ethics commission met privately — which is typical — for nearly six hours in a room with a portrait of the governor on the wall. Sanford's lawyer waited outside with reporters.

The commission decision came more than four months after Sanford returned from his mysterious absence to tearfully admit to an affair with an Argentine woman he later called his soul mate. He had led his staff to believe he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

He and the first lady said they were struggling to reconcile. In August, Jenny Sanford and their four sons moved out of the governor's mansion in Columbia. Jenny Sanford, who says the two are separated, is writing a book about the her life.

Wednesday's decision came a day after four Republican legislators filed a measure that calls for Sanford's impeachment based only on his five-day trip in June.

They claim that his absence, failure to appoint someone to run the state while he was away, and leading staff to believe he was hiking resulted in dereliction of duty and brought "extreme dishonor and shame" on the state.

If an impeachment bill were to pass, state senators would serve as jurors for a trial. Eighteen of the 27 Republicans who control the upper chamber said in July that Sanford should go, but there has been no polling of membership since then.