SC gov. faces 37 charges for breaking ethics laws

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Gov. Mark Sanford is accused of breaking 37 ethics laws regarding campaign finances and travel, including using taxpayer money for high-priced airplane tickets that took him around the world and to Argentina for a rendezvous with the woman he once called his “soul mate.”

The governor’s attorney said he looks forward to answering the “technical questions” regarding Sanford’s travel and finances at a State Ethics Commission hearing early next year. Details of the civil charges were released Monday and carry a maximum $74,000 in fines.

They came after a three-month investigation by the panel and could be pivotal in a push by some South Carolina lawmakers to remove the Republican governor from office before his second and final term expires in January 2011. The state attorney general is deciding whether Sanford would face any criminal charges.

The civil charges include 18 instances in which Sanford is accused of improperly buying first- and business-class airline tickets, violating state law requiring lowest-cost travel; nine times of improperly using state-owned aircraft for travel to political and personal events, including a stop at a discount hair salon; and 10 times he improperly reimbursed himself with campaign cash.

Sanford has been under scrutiny since he vanished for five days during the summer, reappearing to tearfully admit to an extramarital affair with the Argentine woman. The travel allegations were uncovered in a series of Associated Press investigations. Some of the allegations about his use of campaign funds were revealed by The State newspaper in Columbia.

“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 attorney Butch Bowers said Monday.

The thic commission’s investigative report shows it reviewed 668 flights on state-owned planes, 12 overseas trips on commercial planes and 25 reimbursements to Sanford and his wife using more than $10,800 in campaign money.

Each of the counts claims Sanford used his office for personal financial gain.

The report also shows the commission questioned 61 previously undisclosed flights on privately owned aircraft but did not issue charges after Sanford reported them while the investigation was ongoing.

Among the mistakes the ethics commission says it found:

– Approval of the purchase of four first- and business-class commercial airline tickets for a June 2008 trip during which he met with his mistress in Argentina.

– Personal use of state-owned aircraft for trips such as the birthday party of a campaign contributor in Aiken, and flying from Myrtle Beach to Columbia for a “personal event,” including a haircut.

– Reimbursing himself nearly $3,000 using campaign contributions, including about $900 for expenses to attend a Republican Governors Association meeting in Miami and a hunting trip in Dublin, Ireland, several days later.

Still, even several lawmakers who have called for Sanford to step down said it was unclear whether the accusations would be weighty enough to propel an impeachment measure.