McMaster not close to decision on charges

South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, shown during a recent GOP debate at the Newberry Opera House, says he is not ready to make a decision about possible criminal charges against Gov. Mark Sanford.

COLUMBIA — Attorney General Henry McMaster said Wednesday that he's not close to making a decision whether to bring criminal charges against Gov. Mark Sanford based on the 37 civil ethics charges that Sanford is facing.

'It takes time to review that and we are doing that,' McMaster said. 'Those things have to be reviewed very carefully.

'There really is no timetable other than to do a good, thorough, professional job and then make the right decision,' he said.

McMaster acknowledged that he's in a delicate position.

On the political front he's running to replace Sanford, and a criminal prosecution would bolster an impeachment move that, if successful, would promote one of his opponents, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, to governor.

McMaster and Sanford also have shared legal advice from the same lawyer, Butch Bowers. Bowers and McMaster said there's no conflict of interest, noting that the state's tight-knit legal community has many such intertwined relationships.

'This is the kind of situation that is so fraught with political agendas outside of the office that there will always be criticisms and always be questions,' McMaster said. 'Whatever I do, I'm sure, will be unpopular with someone.'

Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia lawyer, former prosecutor and past chairman of the state Democratic Party, said the relationship underscores the need for a special prosecutor.

'That's the final nail in the coffin of conflict of interest. What that means is that Henry McMaster should immediately petition the Supreme Court today to appoint a special prosecutor that would have the authority to convene a grand jury to examine the matter and to get testimony under oath.'

Sanford faces ethics charges that accuse him of using state airplanes for personal or political purposes, traveling in pricey commercial airline seats despite a rule requiring low-cost travel and improperly reimbursing himself using campaign money.

A hearing into the charges is to be held next year and, if found in the wrong, the governor could have to pay as much as $74,000 in fines.

The governor's lawyers said they look forward to answering questions, and they contend that no criminal charges are warranted.

The governor has been under scrutiny since his June disappearance and subsequent admission to an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman.

He's brushed aside calls to resign, but lawmakers this week held the first of a series of hearings into whether he could be impeached.

McMaster said that any call for a special prosecutor is premature.

He also said Bowers' past work doing volunteer campaign and ethics-compliance work, and his past work with McMaster's old law firm, present no conflict.

'I don't see any conflict. He's not advising me anymore and hasn't for a long time. He has given me no information at all and no advice at all about anything concerning Governor Sanford,' McMaster said.

Bowers has been representing Sanford in the ethics investigation since August.

'There is no relationship that would create a conflict of interest,' Bowers said. 'In the past I did some volunteer work for Attorney General McMaster's now-dormant AG campaign in an unrelated matter to the matter now involving Governor Sanford.'