Sanford scores big victory in impeachment talks

COLUMBIA — The seven legislators considering Gov. Mark Sanford's impeachment agreed today to drop from consideration 28 of the 37 ethics violations that Sanford faces.

But Rep. Jim Harrison, a Columbia Republican who is leading impeachment talks, said the most serious charge is still before the panel: the governor's June trip to Argentina.

The legislators will meet again Monday in what is now expected to be their final meeting before the deliberations are advanced to the full 25-member House Judiciary Committee.

Harrison said while Sanford's use of first- and business-class tickets and questionable campaign reimbursements might be valid ethics violations, he does not believe they rise to the level of serious misconduct, the threshold needed to be considered for impeachment.

"It doesn't rise to the level of serious crimes or serious misconduct," Harrison said.

The six other legislators on the subcommittee agreed.

Sanford will face a closed-door administrative hearing, likely in January, before the State Ethics Commission on all 37 of the possible violations. Sanford is charged with his using his public office for personal financial gain for his use of the upgraded plane tickets, less than $3,000 in campaign reimbursements and nine flights aboard state aircraft.

Attorney General Henry McMaster is also reviewing the evidence to determine whether Sanford should be charged criminally.

Sanford's personal attorney, Butch Bowers, released a statement shortly after the committee adjourned.

"We are pleased with the Committee's decision to throw out 28 of the 37 ethics allegations, and we appreciate the due consideration the Committee has given to these matters. This decision confirms that Governor Sanford has followed the letter and spirit of the law. We look forward to resolving this matter quickly and showing, as the Committee’s actions today demonstrate, that this Administration has been a consistent ally of the taxpayer."

Ross Garber, attorney for the Office of the Governor, also issued a statement:

"It is appropriate that the Committee dismissed the bulk of the allegations against the governor. These allegations clearly did not rise to the level of serious crimes and serious misconduct in office required to justify impeachment of a governor for the first time in the history of South Carolina."

The less-than 30 minute deliberations, however, took the audience by surprise. The two previous subcommittee meetings stretched for an hour and three hours, respectively. The first meeting was an organization session.

While today's meeting signaled a big victory for Sanford it does not mean he is in the clear.

"This isn't over," Rep. James Smith, a Columbia Democrat, said. "There is still a lot of evidence for us to entertain."

The subcommittee will meet Monday to discuss Sanford's trip to Argentina in 2008.

The state Department of Commerce had scheduled a trade mission to Brazil, but the governor asked that the trip be extended to include Argentina. He admitted this summer to seeing his mistress on that trip and reimbursed the state $3,300 for that portion of the trade mission.

The subcommittee wants to know whether the trade mission to Argentina yielded any economic development for South Carolina and wants an explanation as to why the Commerce Department shifted policy to accommodate the governor's request.

Harrison said he expects the subcommittee to wrap up its work on Monday, although the panel may also need to meet on Wednesday.

Rep. Greg Delleney, a Chester Republican, filed the impeachment resolution that set the proceedings in motion. He argues that Sanford should be impeached based on his clandestine five-day trip to Argentina in June.

The governor left the state with no chain of command in place and misled his staff, who in turn misled other public officials, to believe that Sanford was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Those actions constitute serious misconduct, according to Delleney.

After the subcommittee's Monday meeting, the seven legislators are expected to make a recommendation to the full House Judiciary Committee. Harrison wants the full committee to conclude its consideration of Sanford's impeachment before Christmas.

The full committee will decide whether to forward the impeachment resolution to the House floor or end the talks.

Two-thirds of the full House would have to vote for impeachment. The governor would then be suspended from office while the Senate serves as jury in the case.

Sanford also faces possible civil and criminal charges.

Today, Sanford is scheduled to visit the First Baptist Church of Orangeburg at noon.

He is welcome to testify before the subcommittee but has not been called to do so.