Nearly two months after Gov. Mark Sanford kicked off his self-described “political funeral” by admitting to having an extramarital affair, more revelations of unethical conduct are fueling talks of possible impeachment.
Cries for Sanford’s resignation after leaving the country without any word of his whereabouts reached a crescendo when he acknowledged he had used some public money to pay for visits that included times he saw his paramour, Maria Belen Chapur in Argentina.
Turning whispers of impeachment to audible discussion is Attorney General Henry McMaster’s request for an Ethics Commission investigation into Sanford’s possible violation of state law in his air travels. Sen. David Thomas, R-Fountain Inn, has gone on record to say he believes Sanford has violated state travel policy by flying business class, rather than the least expensive options available.
Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Seneca, is among those believing the governor has committed an impeachable offense. Sandifer said an impeachment resolution in the House is likely.
“I would not be surprised if a resolution is introduced,” Sandifer said. “I don’t know who will do it, but that would not surprise me at all, given the emotion of a lot of the members. I think there’s a fair amount of likelihood that would be.”
The impeachment process would begin in the state’s House of Representatives, where it takes a resolution and a subsequent two-thirds majority to go to trial in the Senate, where another two-thirds majority is required to determine whether or not the governor is guilty of serious misconduct warranting his removal.
Sandifer said it isn’t necessarily the sincerity of Sanford’s recommitment to transparency that House Republicans are pondering, as much as it is a blatant breaking of the law.
“Contrition is fine, but the fact of the matter is they believe he’s broken the law,” Sandifer said. “The number of times he’s broken the law is really immaterial. It’s the fact that he broke it. Period.”
He added that the negative public attention and scrutiny spawned by Sanford’s misgivings has negatively impacted the state economically.
“There’s no doubt about that. I’ve talked to some folks from out of the state with regard to economic development and their approach is, even if they wanted to build a plant or bring jobs to South Carolina, if the CEO were to take that proposal to their board of directors, they’d be laughed out of the office,” Sandifer said.
“Not only has he brought SC to be a laughing stock nationwide, but to businesses worldwide as well.”
Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell has acknowledged the possibility of impeachment, but said House members should wait until carefully weighing the findings of an Ethics Commission probe before deciding a course of action.
“Until very recently, Governor Sanford’s disappointing actions have been just that, disappointing,” Harrell said. “But now, real tangible evidence has come to light that suggests that several serious ethical — and possibly illegal — acts may have been committed by Governor Sanford.”
Harrell’s spokesman Greg Foster said the speaker would have no further comment on the possibility of impeachment until after the probe.
“After an Ethics Commission investigation, the House can determine the appropriate course of action,” Harrell said. “This action might include censuring the governor, accepting an impeachment resolution or determining that no further action is necessary.”
Paul Agnew, D-Abbeville, is among many House Democrats who are in no hurry to call for the governor’s impeachment, saying the most prudent approach would be to formally weigh the evidence when the General Assembly goes back into session.
“I do think it’s becoming more and more difficult, if not impossible, for him to lead, and I do also believe a resolution will be filed when we commence the session in January,” Agnew said. “But I would like to hear more about the specifics and see what hard evidence exists that there may have been misappropriation of tax dollars before I come to any conclusions.”
Rep. Bill Clyburne, D-Aiken, said he did not support an impeachment resolution, saying he had not seen any evidence of misconduct rising to the level of impeachment. He is doubtful a resolution will hit the House floor.
“I don’t think it will, and I’m not favor of doing it just because we had someone who went astray,” Clyburne said. “The Republican Party ought to do the right thing and the governor do the right thing and not go through a waste of time and taxpayers’ money and go through the impeachment process.”
Sandifer believes, however, that some Democrats’ willingness to forgive is driven by the desire to see Sanford’s troubles drown his own party.
David Woodard, political science professor at Clemson University and conservative strategist, said that while such motivation is not implausible, the end result will hurt Republicans regardless of whether or not Sanford is impeached. Sanford completing his term would augment state Democrats’ ability to paint Republican opponents as in league with the shamed governor.
“Democrats stand to benefit no matter what happens. There’s no downside for Democrats,” Woodard said. “They benefit if there’s an impeachment, and if Sanford stands in, they have a straw man to run against. Scandal always helps the party out of power. When it comes to scandal there’s no way to cut your losses.”
Impeachment may be an impractical step, Woodard believes, as hearings weighing the evidence and a subsequent vote in the House, plus trial in the Senate could take a long time — long enough even for Sanford’s term to end before he ever gets removed from office, should the Senate choose to do so.
Rep. Chandra Dillard, D-Greenville, said strategy very well could have a hand in some GOP leaders’ outcry against Sanford.
“I do think the Republican Party has to make some kind of public response,” Dillard said. “The outcry from South Carolinians has been for his resignation. Because they are the party in the majority, they must have some sort of response.”
Rep. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, is another Democrat who was not willing to prematurely call for impeachment, saying he’d much rather see the governor resign before it has to get to such a point. Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, also said he believes Sanford should resign rather than even providing a remote possibility of putting the people of the state through a painful impeachment proceeding.
“I’ve asked him to resign and I think that would be a far more appropriate course of action, rather than going the impeachment route,” Alexander said. “It’s my hope that he’ll sit down with his leadership in the House and talk with them and do what is in the best interest of this state. That would be to resign.”
One thing is certain, Woodard said — with blood in the water, Sanford will likely face acerbic criticism and opposition until he leaves office, whether it be in 2010 or before.
“This is going to stay alive regardless of the outcome. It’s like death by a thousand cuts. That’s what mark Sanford is facing,” he said.