Criminal probe darkens Sanford's political prospects

Whether the governor broke South Carolina laws or misused funds while pursuing an illicit affair is the question, said the state's attorney general on Tuesday.

Mary Ann Chastain/AP
South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford collects his thoughts as he admits to The Associated Press more encounters with his Argentine mistress than he previously had disclosed, in his office Tuesday, in Columbia, S.C.

Just as South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford seemed to turn the corner on surviving a scandal that threatened to unseat him, an official criminal investigation will probe whether the governor broke any state laws while conducting a transnational tryst with an Argentinian mom and former TV reporter.

Attorney General Henry McMaster, who formerly had been hesitant to investigate the governor’s dalliances, said Tuesday that he has ordered a preliminary investigation into whether Sanford broke any state laws or misappropriated state funds during his secret meetings in New York and Buenos Aires with Maria Belen Chapur.

The plot thickens

Upon his return from Argentina last week, Governor Sanford told reporters he'd seen her three times in the past year. Then, in a subsequent interview Tuesday with Associated Press, he said he’d actually seen her five times in the past year. He also admitted to “crossing the line” with several other women, but not to the point of starting affairs.

“Everything that’s added to the Sanford story complicates it: When you had one mistress and three visits, you had one dimension. And when it becomes crossed lines with other women and additional meetings with Ms. Chapur, you inevitably have to say, ‘What else?’ ” says Charles Bierbauer, dean of the University of South Carolina’s communications department, and a former political reporter. “The attorney general is well within his rights to say, ‘What else don’t we know about the governor’s escapades?’ ”

The factual correction may have undermined Sanford’s apparent sincerity in describing the relationship. But the original misstatement also seemed strange in light of his honesty about the relationship, including that Chapur is his “soul mate” and that he now faces the prospect of falling back in love with his wife, Jenny, who until recently served as his closest political adviser.

Why Sanford wants to stay on

With political and spiritual advisers urging him to stay on as governor, Sanford says he’s contemplated resigning. But ultimately, he said, it wouldn’t do any good for him to be “hiding down at the farm” and undermining the continuity of a state struggling with 12 percent unemployment and massive budgetary challenges. He vowed to pay back $8,000 in state funds for a trip that included visits with Chapur.

The latest revelations give additional fodder to the palace intrigue swirling around Sanford, including political jockeying by possible future gubernatorial candidates in next year’s campaign.

Three key Republicans have called for Sanford’s resignation, including state Sen. Larry Grooms, one of the governor’s closest allies. Senator Grooms is a potential contender. So is Andre Bauer, the lieutenant governor and next in line for succession should Sanford resign. It was Mr. Bauer's chief ally, state Sen. Jake Knotts, who on June 29 blew the whistle on the governor’s mysterious absence, saying he was concerned about the governor’s safety. Senator Knotts has vowed to take his calls for a criminal investigation to the federal Department of Justice.

Motives hard to glean

That’s likely no longer necessary, as Attorney General McMaster – also a potential contender for the governor’s mansion – seeks to answer questions that seem to mount with Sanford's every public statement.

“There is so much political stuff cutting through this that there’s a question hovering over almost everything: Is this all for the good of the state or for political interests?” says Mr. Bierbauer.

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