The heat is turning up on Mark Sanford, the embattled two-term governor of South Carolina.
On Tuesday, a state legislative panel held its first hearing into possibly impeaching the Republican over his five-day disappearance last June to visit his lover in Argentina. The panel also expanded its review to include 37 ethics charges that were released Monday against Governor Sanford, which centered on travel and campaign spending.
At issue is whether Sanford’s behavior consisted of “serious crimes or serious misconduct in office,” as the standard for impeachment is described by the state constitution. With such a vague definition, state legislators will have wide latitude in their interpretation.
If impeached and removed from office, Sanford would be the first South Carolina governor to face that fate, and only the ninth in US history, following Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s removal earlier this year.
At Tuesday’s hearing, the seven-member panel of the House Judiciary Committee considered an impeachment resolution co-sponsored by four Republicans and one Democrat. The resolution stated that Sanford was derelict in his duty as governor by leaving the state without a clear chain of command in his absence.
“He left his post, he left his state, he left his country without notifying anyone in authority,” said state Rep. Greg Delleney (R), the leader of the impeachment effort, at the hearing. “He was in effect AWOL as chief magistrate or governor for the state of South Carolina, in whom the supreme executive authority of this state is vested.”
State Rep. Walt McLeod (D) questioned whether it was appropriate to apply military terminology, such as “dereliction of duty” and “AWOL,” to Sanford’s conduct when he disappeared.
In the impeachment resolution, Sanford was criticized for conduct that “has brought extreme dishonor and shame to the Office of the Governor of South Carolina and to the reputation of the State of South Carolina.”
The question is, whether any of the behaviors under scrutiny – also now including the 37 alleged ethics violations – rises to the level of an impeachable offense. The ethics charges include the purchase of first-class or business-class airline tickets for official business, when state law requires lowest-cost travel; improper use of state-owned aircraft for travel to political and personal events; and improper reimbursements to himself from campaign funds.
“We are confident that we will be able to address each of these questions, none of which constitutes findings of guilt and none of which we believe rise anywhere near to the traditional standard of impeachment,” Sanford lawyer Butch Bowers said on Monday.
As much as many Republicans in the state would like to see Sanford leave the stage, it’s not clear that the Republican-led legislature will be willing to put the state through the process of impeachment and trial.
“I don’t know that the stomach is there for it,” says Chip Felkel, a Greenville-based GOP consultant. “There are too many issues that are much more important than Mark Sanford that need to be dealt with.”
Of much greater concern, he says, is South Carolina’s 12.1 percent unemployment rate, fifth highest in the country. The recent decision by Boeing Corp. to build an assembly line in North Charleston, S.C., was welcome news for the state. But that will provide jobs in only one part of the state.
Sanford’s term ends in January 2011; his successor is to be elected next November. If Sanford is impeached and convicted before his term expires, he would be replaced by his Republican lieutenant governor, Andre Bauer. State Attorney General Henry McMaster may have to recuse himself from impeachment-related matters, because he is running for the Republican nomination for governor and could face Mr. Bauer.
The seven-member panel will meet again next Tuesday, and has promised to finish its work by Christmas. If it agrees to proceed, the full judiciary committee will consider the resolution, then the full House. Another question is whether enough Democrats would vote “yes” to reach the two-thirds majority needed for impeachment. Politically speaking, some Democrats want to keep Sanford around, because he makes life awkward for Republicans running in the 2010 election.