SC gov's attorneys defend use of state-owned plane

AP News
Posted: Dec 01, 2009 4:06 PM

Attorneys for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford told lawmakers mulling impeachment Tuesday that their client did nothing improper by using state-owned aircraft for travel that included political and personal events.

"Nothing here rises anywhere near the level of what would be an impeachable offense," attorney Butch Bowers told seven members of the House Judiciary Committee in the second of at least four planned meetings.

Sanford's travel and campaign spending have been under scrutiny since he returned in June from a five-day rendezvous with his Argentine lover and confessed a yearlong affair. Since then, investigations by The Associated Press found high-priced travel on commercial planes despite state low-cost travel requirements; use of state planes for personal and political purposes and unreported private plane flights provided by friends and donors.

The committee on Tuesday was only discussing Sanford's use of state-owned planes. Separate hearings will be held next year to address Sanford's 37 civil charges from the state Ethics Commission involving the state-owned aircraft, pricey commercial airline travel and reimbursing himself from campaign funds.

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 next year's hearings.

His attorneys pointed out Tuesday that the governor flew either to or from events where he was invited in his official role as governor, not purely for personal reasons.

In one trip, Bowers said Sanford was invited to the September 2005 Aiken County Republican Party dinner in his official role as governor and he discussed the approaching legislative session.

"It's clearly part of his duties as governor to talk about his plans for the upcoming legislative session," Bowers said.

Another trip to sign books at an Applebee's restaurant was crucial outreach at a franchise that employs 1,500 people statewide, attorney Kevin Hall said. Afterward, Sanford flew to a birthday party for a campaign contributor who is also a major employer.

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"This is what elected officials so often do," Hall said. "Governors do it all the time."

But Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, took issue with that notion, arguing that the travel had nothing to do with job growth.

"Is this a payback to a good political supporter?" Smith asked.

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.

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.