Sanford Impeachment Hearings Begin

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford collects his thoughts as he admits to The Associated Press more encounters with his Argentine mistress than he previously has disclosed, in his office Tuesday, June 30, 2009, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain) AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastian

South Carolina legislators upset with Gov. Mark Sanford's summer disappearance to see his lover in Argentina began a monthslong process on Tuesday that could ultimately remove the two-term Republican from office.

The panel of the House Judiciary Committee that's debating impeachment discussed his five-day absence in June and problems related to it, including the failure to put someone in charge of the state while he was gone.

At an hourlong meeting, the panel's seven members also talked about how they would proceed with at least three more hearings in early December. The next one is scheduled for next Tuesday, and a vote by the panel is expected by the second week of December.

"All he had to do was tell the lieutenant governor that he was going away," said Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, one of the sponsors of the impeachment resolution. "He didn't even have to tell him where he was going. He just had to tell him that he was going away."

Sanford's lawyer, Ross Garber, said in a statement that Sanford's five-day absence does not meet the high standard for impeachment. He noted that Sanford's power would have automatically transferred to the lieutenant governor if there had been an emergency. Impeachments are extremely rare, Garber noted; only eight governors in the nation's history have been removed from office. Garber said the only two removed in the last 80 years had also been indicted on felony charges.

Nevertheless, the four Republicans and one Democrat who co-sponsored the impeachment measure say Sanford was derelict in his duty and wrong to mislead staffers into thinking he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. The measure 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."

Sentiment among the panel members ranged from disgust at Sanford's actions to uncertainty that his behavior amounts to an impeachable offense.

"It may constitute something, but it doesn't constitute dereliction of duty, because those are military terms," said Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Prosperity. "There is no established chain of command or protocol."

Sanford has been under scrutiny and pressure to step down since admitting to an extramarital affair with the woman he has called his "soul mate." He has never revealed the identity of a so-called "back channel" senior administration official the governor contends could have reached him in an emergency. Sanford's state e-mail and phone records show he was not in touch with his office while abroad.

On Tuesday, committee counsel Patrick Dennis also read from affidavits by several officials, including Sanford's chief of staff, Scott English. In the sworn statement, English said he did not speak to Sanford from June 18 to June 23, the day the governor returned to South Carolina.

"I tried to reach Gov. Sanford by phone on multiple occasions but was unable to speak with him," Dennis quoted English as saying in the statement.

Lawyers representing Sanford said in a legal briefing delivered Monday that the governor hasn't done anything that rises to the standard of impeachment. They did not address Tuesday's hearing.

If the impeachment measure passes the panel, it would head to the full Judiciary Committee. From there it would need a majority vote of the 25 members to get it 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. His second and final term ends in January 2011.

During its upcoming meetings, the panel will also discuss the 37 civil charges Sanford is facing following a three-month State Ethics Commission probe. Among other violations detailed Monday, Sanford is accused of using taxpayer money for high-priced airplane tickets that took him around the world and to Argentina.

The ethics probe came after a series of Associated Press investigations 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.
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