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Sanford will open ethics probe to public

CONWAY — Gov. Mark Sanford will allow the public in on an ethics investigation into his travel and expenses, a probe that began two weeks ago, the State Ethics Commission confirmed Friday.

The commission is looking into whether Sanford violated state ethics rules by:

 Using state planes for personal and private uses

 Accepting and failing to report rides on private planes

 Flying overseas on expensive business airfare

 Reimbursing himself for personal expenses from his campaign fund

The commission confirmed the investigation after Sanford waived his right to confidentiality. The commission said it has been reviewing the issues since Aug. 14, citing “sufficient facts to warrant an investigation.”

Sanford says the review will clear him of wrongdoing. Lawmakers said they hoped a public investigation would settle issues for them and the public.

Two weeks ago, three of the state’s top Republicans — Attorney General Henry McMaster, Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell and House Speaker Bobby Harrell — asked the Ethics Commission to review Sanford’s travel.

Any review by the nine-member Ethics Commission, appointed by Sanford, normally is secret. But any subject of an investigation can make it public.

Sanford said a public investigation is in line with his support of open government.

“In the continued spirit of a fair and transparent process, I am today announcing that I’ll be waiving confidentiality as the Ethics Commission studies some of the allegations made in the press and by political detractors. Our administration has nothing to hide,” Sanford said. “The truth will ultimately be laid out on that front.”

Sanford has been under fire since vanishing on a secret trip to Argentina in June and later admitting an extramarital affair.

Ethics Commission director Herbert Hayden said the panel voted to accept Sanford’s case Aug. 14, sending a letter to the governor’s office announcing the decision Aug. 18.

As recently as Thursday, Sanford’s office refused to acknowledge any communication from the Ethics Commission.

Agency investigators have begun collecting documents, Hayden said, and will begin interviews — including of Sanford — soon. The investigative work will be done privately, Hayden said. Once completed, the investigators’ findings will be sent to the commission and McMaster, Hayden said.

The commission can:

 Decide to dismiss the complaint

 Refer it to McMaster for possible criminal prosecution

 Send the matter to an administrative law judge for other sanctions

Hayden said the commission’s vote will be private, but the decision will be announced publicly.

Lawmakers said Sanford’s decision to open the investigation could settle questions about whether Sanford broke state law.

“I think it’s a positive step,” said state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who has been critical of Sanford. “It certainly will take away the mystique or the veil around what the Ethics Commission decides. The more open it is, the more apt it is to get quickly resolved.”

House Republicans are meeting in Myrtle Beach this weekend and are expected to discuss how impeachment of Sanford might work.

Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, said the House should not act on impeachment until the Ethics Commission has reached its conclusion.

“I have no reason to believe the Ethics Commission will not be diligent,” Bingham said. “It could put an end to any questions.”

Sanford challenged lawmakers to open to the public investigations of their own ethics — now conducted by a panel of fellow lawmakers — and disclose more information about their incomes.

“Self-policing clearly doesn’t work,” Sanford said, adding state Sen. John Land, D-Clarendon, flew first class on a foreign trade trip during former Gov. Jim Hodges’ administration.

But lawmakers noted the governor appoints the nine-member commission investigating him, including three members who gave money to Sanford’s campaigns before being named to the panel. Once appointed, Ethics Commission members serve just one term and may not be removed by the governor.

Land said legislative ethics hearings are private to prevent politically motivated charges being lodged close to elections.

Land also said he thought he had paid for his first-class airfare, though he could not find a record to prove the purchase, about a decade ago. Records, Land said, showed the S.C. Senate did not pay for his ticket.

Reach O’Connor at (803) 771-8358.

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