Public Duties, Public Accountability

Posted: Jul 04, 2009 12:00 AM

There is a missing element in all the media attention to the Mark Sanford scandal: How did the South Carolina governor fulfill his public duties? When he told his staff he might take a hike on the Appalachian Trail, it seems he willfully misled them. He was, in fact, not only out of the state, but out of the country. And he did not leave his Lt. Governor in charge.

To see how serious this dereliction of duty was, we have only to ask ourselves: What if the tragic collision on Washington’s Metro had taken place on Amtrak in South Carolina instead? What would the governor’s staff have known about his whereabouts and when would they have known it? Gov. Sanford was absent without leave for a full five days. This is a serious offense.

This is not to say that no governor or high state or federal official can leave the country while in office. President Theodore Roosevelt first showed that that was possible when he visited the construction site of the Panama Canal. His cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, also slipped away from prying reporters to leave Washington—but FDR was attending the vitally important Atlantic Charter Conference with Prime Minister Churchill.

A high public official may leave the office—or even the country—provided that he or she has established the necessary communications links or has taken steps to leave the constitutionally responsible next-in-line in charge. President Reagan named Vice President George H.W. Bush as Acting President—temporarily—while he underwent surgery for colon cancer.

None of this was done by Gov. Sanford. By virtue of his office, the governor is the commander-in-chief of the South Carolina National Guard. Even an 18-year old recruit in that force—or in the Marine Corps Training Center at Parris Island, South Carolina—learns the Fifth General Order: “To quit my post only when properly relieved.”

Gov. Sanford is not the first public official to be caught in marital infidelity, unfortunately. Nor is he likely to be the last. Early in our history, Treasury Sec. Alexander Hamilton was confronted by a committee of Congress. Led by Hamilton’s bitter foe, Sen. James Monroe of Virginia, the committee demanded explanations of Hamilton’s conduct. It appeared to them that he was using public funds to speculate on the stock exchange.

As painful as it was to admit, Hamilton persuaded the senators that he had been paying blackmail to Maria Reynolds and her worthless husband to hush up an illicit affair the secretary had had. He proved he was paying out of his own pocket. He had not misused public monies. Nor had he violated his oath of office.

This, unfortunately, is not something Gov. Sanford can say. Rather than go through a long and tedious accounting of what he did with whom, where he used state money and where he didn’t, it would be far better for Gov. Sanford to resign now.

We already know that he was absent without leave. We don’t tolerate it in our military. Why should we tolerate it from our public officials?