A state panel will decide as early as today whether there is sufficient evidence to try Gov. Mark Sanford for violating state ethics laws in his travel and use of campaign money or to refer his case to prosecutors for possible criminal charges.
The nine-member State Ethics Commission, meeting behind closed doors, will weigh evidence against the governor gathered by commission investigators. The panel's conclusions could prove critical as to whether lawmakers pursue removing Sanford from office.
Republican state representatives filed an impeachment resolution Tuesday, charging fellow Republican Sanford with abandoning his duties when he left the state on a secret five-day June trip to visit his mistress in Argentina.
But House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said, based on what he knows now, Sanford should not be forced from office.
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"Unless the investigation contains new information about serious crimes or serious misconduct by the governor," Harrell said in a written statement, "the information we have to date does not rise to a level to remove him from office."
Ethics Commission director Herbert Hayden said the agency could announce as early as this afternoon whether it will act against Sanford or if the case against him has been dismissed.
The commission will review the evidence and could decide to charge Sanford with ethics violations, setting a date for the hearing. Sanford can choose to make that hearing public, which can include the presentation of evidence, witnesses and testimony.
The commission also could refer the allegations against Sanford to the state attorney general to determine if he has violated criminal law.
But Hayden said the public will have to wait on the S.C. Supreme Court to learn the contents of the investigative report done by Ethics Commission staff.
"We're confused what the court really meant," Hayden said of the Nov. 5 Supreme Court decision that said that report is public, but only if the commission chooses to release it.
The Ethics Commission was scheduled to vote on whether to release the report but has postponed that decision to allow the court to explain its ruling.
The S.C. House has asked the court to clarify its decision, arguing that if the report is public, then the Ethics Commission cannot vote to keep it private.
Sanford has asked the commission for a hearing to prevent staff from giving lawmakers the report. He could appeal a decision from the Ethics Commission to release the report.
State Attorney General Henry McMaster, who will receive a copy of the report, said he would not comment on its contents until his office determines whether Sanford should be charged with any crimes.
State Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester and co-sponsor of the impeachment resolution, thinks impeachment should not depend on the Ethics Commission. Sanford, a married, two-term governor entering his final year in office, abandoned his post and would be fired from a private-sector or military job on those grounds, Delleney said.
Delleney said although Harrell's statement means he does not have the House leader's support, any Sanford investigation will be complete.
"I don't know if it sends a message to back off," Delleney said of Harrell's statement to other lawmakers. "I'm going to make sure it's going to get a thorough investigation."
For now, the impeachment resolution is heading to the House Judiciary committee. Chairman Jim Harrison, R-Richland, said he would appoint a special seven-member committee to handle impeachment. Harrison said he wants to see the Ethics Commission report before selecting committee members and setting a timetable. Delleney said he expects to be named to the committee.
"Until we see that report, we don't know what the investigation will include," Harrison said.