Charleston’s U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford defended taking his fiancee on an all-expenses-paid congressional trip to Israel last month by saying most of the freshman Republican class brought their spouses along to visit the important region of the world.

Democrats, meanwhile, said the trip is further evidence of Sanford’s penchant for traveling while holding elected office.

Sanford, a Republican, was the subject of a National Journal story Tuesday that said he took mistress-turned-fiancee María Belén Chapur to Israel in August on a trip that was paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation.

The privately funded trip, usually limited for relatives, was cleared by a waiver granted by the House Ethics Committee. Sanford asked for and received a special exemption to take Belén Chapur along, the National Journal said.

Sanford gave a two-word answer on the congressional travel form when asked why he wanted to participate in the Israel trip.

“Educational purposes,” he wrote.

The AIEF spent more than $18,558 to fly Sanford and his fiancee to and from Israel for the weeklong journey, the National Journal said. The pair flew business class, records show, with round-trip flights that cost more than $5,000 apiece.

The website LegiStorm, which tracks congressional travel, first noted the participation of Belén Chapur on the Aug. 10-18 trip, according to the National Journal. Stops included Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Tel Aviv and the Sea of Galilee.

The pair were part of a delegation of roughly two dozen Republicans, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy. Many lawmakers bring their spouses along on such trips.

Sanford told the ethics committee that the AIEF made an unsolicited offer to pick up Belen Chapur’s travel expense, the report said.

The committee responded to Sanford by letter that “fiancés/fiancées and unmarried significant others are not ‘relatives’ for purposes of these (travel) regulations.” The panel nonetheless approved her travel, noting that the regulations allow “travelers to seek advance, written permission from the committee to be accompanied by a non-relative,” the report said.

In a statement issued by Sanford’s Washington office, his spokesman noted that the trip was privately funded and was bound for an important region of the world. Also, that nearly two-thirds of the freshman Republican class were participating.

“On this trip, 25 of 26 members brought their spouses, accordingly he elected to bring his fiancée and he received formal approval in advance from the House of Representatives,” the statement said.

Sanford’s previous tenure as South Carolina’s governor was clouded by his extramarital affair with Belén Chapur, whom he had visited in Argentina while his staff said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

S.C. Democratic Party Communications Director Kristin Sosanie said the report of the Israel visit shows that Sanford “seems to focus on an awful lot of trips instead of getting down to the business of serving the people he was elected to represent,” she said. “We saw that during his term as governor and we’re seeing it in his term in Congress.”

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.