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S.C. first lady files for divorce from cheating gov

South Carolina's first lady, a former Wall Street vice president who helped launch her husband's political career, filed for divorce Friday more than five months after his tearful public confession of an affair with an Argentine woman.
Image: Mark Sanford, Jenny Sanford
First lady Jenny Sanford said her husband's extramarital affair hurt her but did not rob her of her self-esteem.Mary Ann Chastain / AP File
/ Source: The Associated Press

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford may be keeping his office, but he is losing his marriage.

First lady Jenny Sanford capped a tumultuous week by filing for divorce Friday, two days after state lawmakers stopped short of recommending her husband's removal for a top-secret June rendezvous with his Argentine mistress. He will not say whether he is still in contact Maria Belen Chapur, the woman he famously called his "soul mate."

Jenny Sanford, a former Wall Street executive who helped launch her husband's political career, said Friday their 20-year marriage could not be repaired.

"This came after many unsuccessful efforts at reconciliation, yet I am still dedicated to keeping the process that lies ahead peaceful for our family," she said in a brief statement released as her divorce complaint was filed in family court.

Her husband, who a day earlier told reporters he still hoped they could reconcile, blamed himself for what he called "the moral failure that led us to this tragic point."

"Jenny is a great person, and has been a remarkable wife, mother and first lady," he said in a statement.

Both Sanfords mentioned their four sons, who have lived with their mother at the family's coastal home on Sullivans Island since she moved out of the governor's mansion in August.

"While our family structure may change, I know that we will both work earnestly to be the best mom and dad we can be to four of the finest boys on earth," Mark Sanford said.

Jenny Sanford's divorce complaint on the grounds of adultery did not mention money, property or custody arrangements.

File photo of Governor Sanford arriving with his wife for a dinner held for the National Governors Association at the White House
South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford arrives with his wife Jenny at a White House dinner held by U.S. President Barack Obama for the National Governors Association in Washington, in this file photo taken February 22, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan ErnstJonathan Ernst / X01676

Nobody answered the door at the Sullivans Island home Friday and Jenny Sanford did not respond to messages left with her and her spokeswoman. Mark Sanford's spokesman also said he would not speak publicly.

Earlier this week, Jenny Sanford said in a television interview that it was a simple decision to not stand with the governor when he publicly confessed the affair.

"Certainly his actions hurt me, and they caused consequences for me, but they don't in any way take away my own self-esteem," the 47-year-old told ABC's Barbara Walters, who named her one of the most fascinating people of 2009. "They reflect poorly on him."

Mark Sanford, 49, disappeared for almost a week in late June to see Chapur, leaving his staff and his wife in the dark about where he was. His staff told reporters he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. He returned and tearfully confessed the affair at a rambling news conference.

Jenny Sanford said then she was willing to reconcile with the two-term governor, once mentioned as a possible 2012 GOP presidential contender. She weathered the publication of passionate e-mail exchanges between her husband and Chapur, and an Associated Press interview in which he called his mistress his "soul mate" and admitted "crossing the line" with other women.

Jenny Sanford, who is working on a memoir, said she learned about the affair in January when she found a copy of a letter her husband wrote to Chapur. In the months following, he asked several times to visit his mistress. His wife said no.

"It's one thing to forgive adultery; it's another thing to condone it," she told the AP two days after her husband revealed the affair.

Marjory Wentworth, a close friend of Jenny Sanford, said she knew the filing was coming.

"No matter what the circumstances are, you go through a period that is sort of muddled — you're still a family, even though everyone knew she moved down here. I think it's been that kind of strange transition," said Wentworth, who is South Carolina's poet laureate. "Limbo is a tough place to be."

As first lady, Jenny Sanford has little official role in state government, but she has been a quiet presence since her husband took office in 2003, often attending morning meetings with his top staff and working on a public health campaign.

Born Jennifer Sullivan, the first lady grew up near Chicago. Her grandfather founded the Skil Corp., a power tool manufacturer. She graduated from Georgetown University in 1984 with a degree in finance, then worked for the Wall Street investment banking firm Lazard Freres & Co., where she was a vice president. The Sanfords met in New York in the 1980s, when Mark Sanford also was working in finance.

Image: Maria Belen Chapur
** CORRECTS SLUG TO ARGENTINA SC GOVERNOS THE MISTRESS ** In this undated video frame grab, taken from a C5N TV Channel from Argentina report sometime during the Sept.11, 2001 twin towers attacks in New York, Argentine Maria Belen Chapur speaks during a stand up. The 41-year-old Argentine woman, who had worked as free-lance journalist in the past, has acknowledged having a relationship with South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. In a statement sent to news network C5N of Buenos Aires, Chapur said she will not talk about her private life, but also said the email exchanges with Sanford that were widely published by U.S. media and elsewhere were obtained by someone who hacked her account.(AP Photo/C5N TV)C5N

They married in 1989 and relocated to South Carolina, where Sanford worked in real estate before serving three terms in Congress. He becomes the first sitting governor to divorce in South Carolina, which only started allowing it in 1949.

Over the past few months, he has sought to regain credibility during a statewide apology tour and rebuffed repeated calls to leave office.

On Wednesday, a legislative panel considering whether to impeach him instead recommended a formal rebuke.

The panel said his trips to see Chapur in Argentina and his use of state planes for personal and political trips brought "ridicule, dishonor, disgrace and shame" to the state he was twice overwhelmingly elected to lead.

Sanford is term-limited and will leave office in January 2011. Asked Thursday whether he had cut off contact with Chapur, a divorced mother of two who has worked as an English interpreter and market researcher, he declined to answer.

She has made only one statement, appealing for privacy last June after the affair became public. A friend who had been acting as her spokesman declined to provide any information Friday about where things stand between her and Sanford.