SC legislators begin impeachment hearings

COLUMBIA, S.C. - November 24, 2009

The Republican faces new ethics charges about his travel and campaign finances. But the panel of the House Judiciary Committee that's debating impeachment are focused this week on his five-day absence in June and problems directly related to it, including the failure to put someone in charge of the state while he was gone.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell told the seven members of the subcommittee that he did not envy their task but said their work would allow lawmakers to focus on the upcoming session when they return to Columbia. Their work is the first step in an impeachment process that would extend into next year, if the measure is approved.

"In our work, we must rise above any personal or political feelings," Harrell, R-Charleston, said. "The task you have before you is by no means an easy one."

The four Republicans who co-sponsored the measure contend Sanford was derelict in his duty and wrong to mislead staffers into thinking he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

The measure says in part that Sanford's "conduct under these circumstances 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." It continues that it has caused the office and state "to suffer ridicule resulting in extreme shame and disgrace."

Sanford has been under scrutiny and pressure to step down since admitting to an extramarital affair with the woman he has called his "soul mate." He has never revealed the identity of a so-called "back channel" senior administration official the governor contends could have reached him in an emergency. Sanford's state e-mail and phone records show he was not in touch with his office while abroad.

On Tuesday, committee counsel Patrick Dennis read from affidavits by several officials, including Sanford's chief of staff, Scott English. In the sworn statement, English said he did not speak to Sanford from June 18 to June 23, the day the governor returned to South Carolina.

"I tried to reach Gov. Sanford by phone on multiple occasions but was unable to speak with him," Dennis quoted English as saying in the statement.

Lawyers representing Sanford said in a legal briefing delivered Monday that the governor hasn't done anything that rises to the standard of impeachment.

"Impeaching a sitting governor is a seldom used and serious legal action that many have termed 'the political equivalent to capital punishment.' It is reserved for situations in which no lesser response or reprimand will do," said the document from the attorneys.

If the impeachment measure passes the panel, it would head to the full Judiciary Committee. Committee Chairman Jim Harrison said he expects that the full committee would be able to take up the issue before Christmas.

From there it would need a majority vote of the 25 members to get it to the House floor in January for debate. A two-thirds vote in favor would result in Sanford's suspension.

The Senate, acting as jury, then would decide whether Sanford would be removed from office, which would also require a two-thirds vote. His second and final term ends in January 2011.

Harrison has said that later meetings by the Judiciary Committee panel will consider the 37 civil charges Sanford is facing following a three-month State Ethics Commission probe. Among other violations, Sanford is accused of using taxpayer money for high-priced airplane tickets that took him around the world and to Argentina.

Sanford's attorney said the governor looks forward to answering the "technical questions" regarding his travel and finances at a commission hearing early next year. The civil charges detailed Monday carry a maximum $74,000 in fines. The state attorney general is deciding whether Sanford would face any criminal charges.

The ethics probe came after a series of Associated Press investigations showed the governor had for years used state airplanes for political and personal trips, flown in pricey commercial airline seats despite a low-cost travel requirement and failed to disclose trips on planes owned by friends and donors. The State newspaper in Columbia also questioned whether Sanford properly reimbursed himself from his campaign cash.

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