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Probe of governor’s flights urged

South Carolina’s top prosecutor and legislative leaders called Thursday on the State Ethics Commission to investigate Gov. Mark Sanford’s use of state planes and other resources.

However, critics questioned whether that commission — which normally works in secret, is appointed by Sanford and includes donors to his campaign — is up to the task.

In a letter to the Ethics Commission, Attorney General Henry McMaster said media reports “suggested there may be violations of the State Ethics Act by Governor Mark Sanford.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell and House Speaker Bobby Harrell, both Charleston Republicans, echoed the call by McMaster, a Columbia Republican who is expected to announce next week that he will be a candidate to succeed Sanford in 2010.

Sanford, a Charleston Republican, has been under fire since he disappeared for five days in June and, later, admitted an extra-marital affair.

A review of travel expenses showed Sanford had flown in expensive business-class seating. State law forbids use of first-class tickets; regulations require “coach or tourist class” airfare. Additionally, The Associated Press reported Sanford used state planes for personal or political travel, a possible violation of state law.

Sanford has said he used state planes less than his predecessors and, traditionally, governors have used business-class tickets when flying overseas.

But Sanford also reimbursed the state $3,300 for airfare for an economic development trip to Argentina, where he met his lover.

Herbert Hayden, the Ethics Commission’s executive director, said the nine-member panel — appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate — will decide within a day or two whether it will accept the request to investigate. If it does, Hayden said, its investigators will begin collecting documents and interviewing people.

The commission’s work is secret — including whether it accepts the case — until it releases its findings, unless Sanford waives confidentiality. Aides said they did not know whether Sanford would ask for a public process. There is no timetable to complete the review.

Hayden said the agency has never investigated a governor. “We’ve had inquiries about things,(but) we’ve never actually conducted an investigation (of a governor).”

Hayden said the review could:

 Conclude Sanford did nothing wrong.

 Conclude Sanford broke ethics laws and issue a public reprimand, require restitution or issue fines of up to $2,000 for each offense.

 Find evidence of a criminal violation and refer the issue to law enforcement.

Sanford, who has said his use of state planes has been described unfairly, said he welcomed the scrutiny. “I look forward to the Ethics Commission or anybody looking at the way we used that plane.”

Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, said his review of Sanford’s spending will continue, adding he will make his evidence and findings public.

“You’re not going to get that from the Ethics Commission,” said Thomas, a candidate for Congress. “On top of that, they’re appointed by the governor. It’s going to seem to the public like we’re passing the buck.”

Democrats joined in that criticism.

“They’re appointed by the governor,” said state Rep. Boyd Brown, D-Fairfield, who has called for an investigation by the statewide grand jury. “We’re not going to let it go away that easily.”

Brown also questioned the objectivity of Ethics Commission members. Three members donated to Sanford’s campaign.

While Brown said support is building to impeach Sanford, legislative leaders said allowing the Ethics Commission to investigate first clears up potential conflicts of interest.

Under state law, the House would have to begin any impeachment proceedings against the governor with the Senate judging whether Sanford was guilty of the charges.

“We wanted to make sure our role did not get compromised,” McConnell said. Otherwise, the Senate could investigate Sanford and, later, find itself in the position of judging his guilt in a possible impeachment trial.

Harrell said the Ethics review will simplify the legal issues.

“Instead of multiple separate investigations taking place, one report issued by an impartial body — such as the State Ethics Commission — should be the basis the House uses to take appropriate actions,” Harrell said in a written statement.

Reach O’Connor at (803) 771-8358.

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