A South Carolina House committee on Wednesday found that lies, hypocrisy, and abdication of duty by Gov. Mark Sanford did not amount to “serious misconduct” under the South Carolina Constitution. In effect, that ends a bid to impeach what one lawmaker called “the AWOL governor.”
Instead, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously voted to censure the former Republican presidential hopeful for bringing “ridicule, dishonor, disgrace, and shame on the governor’s office and the state of South Carolina.” The full House and Senate have to approve the censure resolution.
Governor Sanford disappeared on June 18, only to reappear back in South Carolina on June 23. He had told staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, but instead he had turned off his cell phone and had flown to Buenos Aires to visit a mistress, Maria Chapur, whom he later called his “soul mate.”
After ditching state agents responsible for his protection, Sanford had planned a 10-day trip away from Columbia, but returned after five days when he saw an item about his whereabouts on CNN, according to the committee.
“We didn’t need subpoenas, there was never a factual dispute, the only question is: Is this serious misconduct or not?” said Rep. James Smith, who voted against impeachment.
‘A culture of political complacency’
Beyond embarrassment over the affair felt by many South Carolinians, the investigation and impeachment proceedings became for some lawmakers a defining moment for South Carolina’s ability to break through what one lawmaker called a “culture of political complacency.”
“This will set the standard for what’s constitutionally acceptable with regard to character, integrity, and conduct,” said Rep. Greg Delleney, chairman of an ad hoc committee. “If this doesn’t amount to serious misconduct, I don’t know what does. What are we going to tell the people of South Carolina? If you’re a statewide official, character and integrity don’t matter?”
In what was at times an emotional hearing, Rep. Todd Rutherford blasted Sanford and lawmakers angling for censure, referring to the proceedings as a “kangaroo court.”
Addressing those who said the state should move onto other business, Mr. Rutherford said: “The impression is that we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, and somehow that if we take up impeachment people will lose jobs. We’re equipped to handle this in an efficient manner that suggests to taxpayers that this isn’t the good old boy club where all we do is take care of each other and whitewash stuff.”
Last week, a House subcommittee dropped the majority of more than 30 ethics charges against Sanford, most involving questionable use of the state airplane for political trips, including a birthday party – stinging charges against a politician who ran as a frugal conservative.
Impeachment voted down
Subsequent findings that Sanford also scheduled a business trip in 2008 to Argentina specifically to be with a lover became part of the censure proclamation passed unanimously by the House Judiciary Committee, which only minutes later had voted down an impeachment resolution by a vote of 18 to 6.
A majority of committee members said that, despite Sanford’s missteps, his behavior simply did not rise to the level of impeachment. They pointed to recent examples from other states, such as the impeachment of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for allegedly attempting to sell a US Senate seat.
On the other hand, Mr. Delleney testified that South Carolina’s constitution includes some of the broadest definitions of all states when it comes to when a governor can be impeached – a provision that dates back to its very first constitution as a founding colony.
But several lawmakers said polls and their own conversations with South Carolinians indicated a desire to move on from this topic and let Sanford serve out his term, which ends next year. Politically, many lawmakers also have concerns about allowing Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer to take over the reins of the state.
“A vote for censure is not an endorsement for the governor, quite the contrary,” said Mr. Smith. “This is a political decision that looks first and foremost at the interests of the people of South Carolina, where the governor has caused us far too much harm, and the impeachment process will continue that harm, and generate more harm than good.”
Rep. Leon Stavrinakis said Sanford has been “working hard” since this summer to make up for his mistake. And while he’ll likely not face an embarrassing removal from office, the affair has taken a toll on the governor. His wife, Jenny, filed for divorce last week.
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Stanford did not address the censure vote.
“As we’ve consistently said, this administration has tried to be a stalwart ally of the taxpayer, and will remain so for the next 13 months,” he said.
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