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Governor Sanford facing impeachment whispers again

This time, it's about politics, not an Argentine mistress. A state senator is investigating whether the governor used state money inappropriately on his travels.

By Staff writer / August 11, 2009

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford fields questions for the media about his use of state and commercial planes after his cabinet meeting Tuesday, in Columbia, S.C.

Mary Ann Chastain/AP

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Atlanta

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s troubles are apparently far from over.

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First came his incommunicado absence, then revelations of an Argentine mistress, and a tearful admission of personal failure – a drama that threatened to loosen his grip on the reins of the Palmetto State.

But the Sanford saga is now moving into a deeper and perhaps even more treacherous territory: a political battle involving an investigation into the Republican governor’s travel plans and his use of state aircraft. With a dogged state senator leading a comprehensive investigation into Governor Sanford’s alleged misdeeds, impeachment whispers can once again be heard in the State Capitol.

“The dialogue has shifted from a concern about the governor’s private conduct to concern about the governor’s public conduct,” says Blease Graham, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina. “This is more than just sensationalism; it’s politics now. There are awkward moments ahead.”

Awkward moments are continuing on the personal front.

One reason for Sanford's survival in the topsy-turvy days after his admission of an affair was that his wife, Jenny Sanford, offered to reconcile, appeasing some in Sanford’s evangelical base.

But images of Ms. Sanford herself moving boxes out of the Governor’s Mansion over the weekend raised doubts about whether those efforts – which included recent trips to Florida and Europe – have worked. The couple says the split has more to do with their decision to send their four boys to school near the couple’s coastal home.

Whatever the cause, Republican state Sen. David Thomas is watching. The chair of a legislative subcommittee looking into possible misuse of state funds by Sanford, Senator Thomas says: “The humiliation and embarrassment that this has brought to the state, one has to weigh at what point it reaches the constitutional level of [the governor] being removed.”

Increasingly, Sanford’s personal troubles have hinted at management, travel, and lifestyle choices increasingly at odds with his public image as a frugal conservative with strong family values.

An Associated Press review of Sanford's travel records found that he used state aircraft for personal trips and took business- and first-class flights on taxpayers' dime. Sanford told reporters Tuesday that previous governors have used state planes similarly, and he was unapologetic when asked about the pricey commercial flights, according to the AP.

This week, his office said Thomas is “overreaching” in his investigation.

Attempts by Thomas to deepen the probe into the governor’s travels have so far fallen on deaf ears. Both Republicans and Democrats have reasons to oppose a more robust investigation.

Republicans see Sanford as a lame duck governor and don’t want to risk an investigation that could damage the party as a whole, experts say. Democrats, meanwhile, worry that an investigation will not reveal sufficient wrongdoing to warrant either impeachment or criminal indictment.

Moreover, Attorney General Henry McMaster has his own eyes on the governor’s mansion and could be concerned about potential political fallout from an impeachment hearing.

“There’s a fear of the unknown by both parties that causes them to want to avoid any serious investigation,” says John Crangle, president of Common Cause South Carolina, a nonpartisan think tank. “Senator Thomas is kind of a lone ranger right now.”

But anger is rising as the public is increasingly getting the sense “that the governor’s heart just isn’t in it," says Professor Graham.

And this week’s revelations, are changing lawmakers’ attitudes, Thomas suggests.

“Legislators are beginning to understand that this isn’t just going to go away,” he says. “This is South Carolina’s Bill Clinton story. The public is expecting a resolution.”