South Carolina lawmakers voted Wednesday to formally rebuke Gov. Mark Sanford for secret trips to see his Argentine mistress and misuse of state planes.
One of the visits was in 2008 during a taxpayer-funded trip to South America that was supposed to be an economic development mission. The other was in June, when Sanford disappeared from the state and left no one in charge.
The House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a rebuke that says the governor brought "ridicule, dishonor, disgrace and shame" to the state. Members agreed with a smaller panel's decision a week earlier that Sanford's missteps did not warrant impeachment.
The larger committee voted down an effort to remove him 18-6, despite pleas from some members to let the full House vote on impeachment.
"A vote for censure is not an endorsement for the governor's conduct," said state Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, who argued an impeachment trial would be a distraction when the state has more important things to worry about. "It's quite the contrary."
The rebuke still requires majority votes in the House and Senate. Those likely won't happen till next year.
Sanford has been under scrutiny since June, when he returned from a secret trip to Argentina and tearfully revealed his affair with a woman named Maria Belen Chapur. His staff had told reporters he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Probes of his travel and campaign spending led to more than three dozen ethics charges and the potential for $74,000 in fines. Lawmakers considered a handful of those charges in reaching their censure decision, saying the governor violated the public's trust in part by using state planes for personal and political trips.
Sanford's second, final term ends in January 2011. His wife, Jenny, filed for divorce last week, citing adultery.
Mark Sanford is the first South Carolina governor to face censure. Only eight U.S. governors have been removed by impeachment, and the only two removed in the last 80 years each faced criminal charges.
Some lawmakers still said Wednesday Sanford should lose his job, contending he abused his power in taking the trips and was derelict in his duty by leaving the state. State Rep. Greg Delleney, the most vocal proponent of impeachment, said Sanford "through his own deceitful behavior has lost all moral authority."
"It is about abuse of power by Mark Sanford," said Delleney, R-Chester.
Lawmakers also focused on a state-funded trip in 2008 during which the governor's longtime friendship with Chapur turned physical. After he revealed the relationship this summer, Sanford reimbursed the state for part of the prior year's trip. He has maintained that he traveled to Buenos Aires for economic development meetings following a dove hunting excursion elsewhere and says the meeting with Chapur was an afterthought.
Critics contend Sanford steered the Commerce Department to get him to Buenos Aires to see Chapur and questioned how seriously any state business was taken while he was there.