For approximately three hours Tuesday a seven member panel of South Carolina House members questioned attorneys for Governor Mark Sanford, to determine if he should be impeached.
The panel examined nine counts Tuesday, including count 20, the “hair cut flight,” where Sanford flew back from business in Myrtle Beach during March of 2006, business including speaking to a Rotary Club, and had his hair cut in Columbia. The hair cut point stems from a note jotted in his calendar.
One of Sanford’s attorneys, Butch Bowers, says the governor was already in Myrtle Beach on official business, speaking to a Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce, and had gotten there on his own, when a staff member flew in and they flew back to Columbia.
Bowers said the governor did not take a flight to Columbia just to get an $11 hair cut and called the idea absurd. He said that Sanford had to return to Columbia at some point anyway. Bowers said that the governor also ate dinner that night but that, as well, had nothing to do with a flight at tax payer expense.
Bowers says even if the hair cut were a factor, that the return trip is completely permissible since the governor was returning home for the night, even though he went back to Myrtle Beach after that, because by law the governor must reside in the Governor’s mansion.
Bowers, pointed out that the Ethics Commission investigated 663 legs of trips that Sanford took, but in every case, the governor’s use of the state plane was in connection with official business and Bowers asserted that none of the points brought up rise to the level of impeachment.
Sanford’s attorney Ross Garber, an impeachment specialist, points out that the Ethics Commission will consider Sanford’s defenses on each count, in due course. Garber also asserted that none of the alleged violations rise to the level of impeachable offenses under the South Carolina Constitution, which provides for impeachment only if the governor committed serious crimes or serious misconduct in office. He adds that the South Carolina impeachment standard is high and strict. Garber says no modern governor of any state has been impeached without having first been charged with felonies. He says only serious crimes and serious misconduct in office that corrupts the system of government may lead to impeachment, what he called the political equivalent of capital punishment.
In November 2006, Sanford flew from Columbia to the Charleston area and attended a book signing at an Applebee’s restaurant. Then he flew to Aiken for a birthday party for a campaign contributor. Sanford’s attorney Kevin Hall says there shouldn’t be too much emphasis on whether the company that owns the restaurant gave money to Sanford’s campaign, since that company is a major employer, with 1500 workers in South Carolina.
Hall said the party in Aiken was connected to the fact that the individual was a major employer in that area–an auto ignition manufacturer headquartered in Aiken that employs more than a 1000 people worldwide. But Representative James Smith asserted that the party was more about politics.
In the fall of 2006 Sanford flew with his family from a National Governor’s Association Conference in West Virginia to a family vacation on the Georgia coast. Attorney Kevin Hall responded to Representative Walt McLeod, saying that Sanford elected to take his family directly to Brunswick, Georgia, rather than stop in Columbia and then drive down there, with a security detail. He suggested it may have even resulted in cost savings for the state.
“I think the question is,” said Hall, “whether it’s a better choice to land and take the SLED detail by ground to the coast, or to stay in the air. That was the choice that was present. He stayed in the air.”
Representative Walt McLeod of Newberry suggested to Hall that Sanford should have reimbursed the state after flying on a state plane to his family vacation.
McLeod joked that he knew of a lawmaker who once used a state plane to travel to a Super Bowl. He said that legislator referred to it as a business trip, but McLeod said it was just “monkey business.”
Representative Gary Smith was not impressed with the Governor’s decision to fly directly to his family vacation. “Like the trip to Argentina and affair in Argentina would you consider this seriously stupid, or serious crimes and serious misconduct?” asked Smith.
“I’m going to reject all those name tags,” responded Hall. “I think this is a choice where a reasonable choice exists , two options are legitimate. He chose an option that has gotten him public criticism.”
This Thursday, the panel will meet again, considering Sanford’s purchase of business-class tickets, his use of campaign funds and his alleged failure to report use of private aircraft. They meet again the following Monday.
Democrat James Smith moved and the panel agreed that the subcommittee now include in its focus the Argentina leg of an economic development trip that Sanford took in 2008. Sanford repaid the state approximately $3,000 for that trip after news of his affair broke.
By Friday, the panel expects responses from various state officials including Scott English, the governor’s Chief of Staff, concerning any contact Sanford had, or did not have, with his staff while he was in Argentina. The subcommittee also wants to hear from SLED leadership concerning Sanford’s statement that SLED could have reached him if they needed to while he was in Argentina. They also want to know if SLED Director Reggie Lloyd was told specifically that Sanford was on the Appalachian Trail.
The subcommittee now conducting meetings may only be the beginning. If that group decides to proceed, the impeachment resolution goes to the full Judiciary Committee. If approved there with a majority vote, it will move to the floor of the full House, where a two-thirds vote would be required to suspend the governor and pass the measure onto the Senate, which would serve as jury in an impeachment trial.