Ethics panel finds probable cause

A special House Subcommittee reconvenes today to consider impeachment of Gov. Mark Sanford.

Mary Ann Chastain

COLUMBIA -- Gov. Mark Sanford will now have to face a panel of ethics judges after the State Ethics Commission determined Wednesday that probable cause exists on several allegations related to his travel and campaign reimbursements.

Little was revealed about the Ethics Commission's decision following a day-long, closed-door meeting. During the meeting, the nine commissioners were presented with the findings of a three-month investigation into the two-term Republican governor that stemmed from his five-day summer rendezvous with his mistress in Argentina.

Herb Hayden, the commission's executive director, said the commission found probable cause 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," he said.

Details of the specific charges -- or whether they involve civil or criminal allegations -- were not provided

Wednesday night. Hayden said more specifics will be released next week.

The administrative hearing is expected to be scheduled in January, at which time evidence and witnesses will be presented to a panel of three of the ethics commissioners. The hearing will not be open to the public unless the governor waives additional confidentiality rights. The commissioners, who will be selected at random for the hearing, will act as judge and jury.

Sanford's lawyer, Butch Bowers, waited outside the Ethics Commission chambers alongside the press for news of the panel's decision.

"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," Bowers said in a statement. "A finding of probable cause is not a finding of guilt, and we look forward to our opportunity to finally present our side of the case to the commission and get this matter resolved.

"We have fully cooperated with the Ethics Commission thus far, and we will continue to do so throughout this process. As we have always maintained, Governor Sanford supports the public release of the full and complete ethics report. We believe that once all of the facts have been considered, it will once again confirm that this administration has been a good steward of tax dollars and public resources."

Bowers did not immediately respond to an e-mail from The Post and Courier that sought clarification about whether Sanford's attorneys were given word about the specific charges.

The governor's office declined comment.

Sanford's travel, including a 2008 trade mission to Brazil that the governor asked to be extended to include Argentina, were questioned after he admitted to an extramarital affair. Investigations by The Associated Press revealed questionable practices in Sanford's use of state, commercial and private planes.

Attorney General Henry McMaster asked the Ethics Commission this summer to review the allegations against Sanford to find out whether the governor had broken any laws.

McMaster will receive a copy of the investigation report that the Ethics Commissioners used to find probable cause. McMaster will determine whether Sanford should face criminal charges.

On Tuesday, McMaster said that he will thoroughly review the report to see if Sanford should face prosecution.

The governor's troubles do not end there.

Sanford faces an impeachment resolution in the House. An ad hoc group from the House Judiciary Committee could begin meeting on the matter as early as next week.

Rep. Greg Delleney, a Chester Republican who filed the impeachment resolution, said the Ethics Commission's finding of probable cause could help convince others of what he believes: Sanford should be forced out of office.

Delleney said he was not waiting on the Ethics Commission. Sanford should be impeached based on the fact that he left the state without anyone in control and misled his staff, who in turn misled the public, about his whereabouts, Delleney said.

"I don't really need any more than that," Delleney said when reached at home.

The news about probable cause means very little, said Rep. Todd Rutherford, a Columbia Democrat and member of the House Judiciary Committee. He is waiting on the commission to release more information.

Probable cause, similar to reasonable suspicion, is a low threshold to meet, said Rutherford, an attorney. Delleney also is an attorney.

What the Ethics Commission does or doesn't do should not influence the Judiciary Committee, Rutherford said. The House members are obligated by the constitution to consider impeachment for dereliction of duty or serious misconduct, he said.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a Charleston Republican, took a difference stance Tuesday. He said that unless new information is revealed about "serious crimes or serious misconduct" by the governor, Harrell does not think the allegations made publicly so far rise to the level to impeach Sanford.

Harrell, who could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday, wants the House to use the Ethics Commission investigative report as a basis of fact to begin impeachment talks, but right now that report is not available to the public.

The next step in the battle to make the report public will come Friday. The state Supreme Court will receive additional arguments on the matter and decide whether to clarify an earlier opinion on the case.