Gov. Mark Sanford's tearful confession that he quietly disappeared from the state for five days to rendezvous with his lover in Argentina has shattered his marriage and dimmed his once-bright political future.
A small group of lawmakers on Tuesday started the debate whether his decision to vanish last summer without telling his staff his whereabouts or leave anyone in charge rises to the "serious crimes or serious misconduct in office" standard necessary to impeach him.
Two proponents of a measure to remove Sanford likened his absence to a soldier leaving his post. But others on the seven-member legislative panel questioned whether the two-term Republican's actions rose to a high enough level to warrant removal _ something usually reserved for officeholders who break the law.
"He left his post, he left his state. He left his country without notifying anyone in authority," said the resolution's chief sponsor state Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester. "He was AWOL as commander in chief of the organized and unorganized militia of this state."
Sanford's attorney contends the impeachment standard is set intentionally high.
"The Governor's temporary absence from the state in June does not meet this high standard," attorney Ross Garber said in a statement.
The committee will meet at least three more times before deciding whether to forward the measure that would eventually have to be debated by the House of Representatives, which has the authority to impeach statewide officeholders.
Delleney conceded Sanford hadn't committed a serious crime but said lawmakers decide what the threshold is for "serious misconduct," the second element allowed for impeachment. Delleney said Sanford evaded his security detail when he left the state and should have told the lieutenant governor.
"Impeachment is a political process. It is not a legal process," he said.
An investigation by the State Ethics Commission found the governor also may have violated state ethics laws for travel and campaign finances, and he faces 37 civil charges that he used his office to personally benefit himself. Those charges weren't discussed at the panel's first meeting, but they'll be added later. For now, the panel concentrated on his disappearance.
"To speak about dereliction of duty, absence without leave, abandoning one's post are terms that ordinarily are reserved for those who are in uniform and who are not civilian citizens of our state and nation," said Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Prosperity. "It may constitute something. But it doesn't constitute dereliction of duty because those are military terms."
Sanford told reporters in Charleston on Tuesday that it's obvious he wanted to keep an affair secret.
"Yes, I had a moral failing. I was gone for five days. I failed my marriage on a number of fronts. I mean, we've been through all of that. I don't know how many times one apologizes for that," he said.
Sanford has brushed aside repeated calls to step down before his final term ends in January 2011, and his lawyers say they'll answer the ethics questions at separate hearings on them early next year.
Four Republicans and one Democrat co-sponsored the impeachment measure. It 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."
Eight U.S. governors have been removed by impeachment, and the only two removed in the last 80 years each faced criminal charges. Standards for impeachment vary by state.
Arizona's Evan Mecham was driven from office in 1988 after he was convicted of trying to thwart an investigation into a death threat allegedly made by an aide. Earlier this year, Rod Blagojevich of Illinois was removed after federal authorities accused him of trying to sell the Senate seat vacated when Barack Obama was elected president.
The ethics probe of Sanford followed a series of Associated Press investigations that 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.
If the panel decides the impeachment measure is worthy, it moves to the full Judiciary Committee. If it passes with a majority vote from its 25 members, it would head 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.
Associated Press Writer Meg Kinnard contributed to this report.