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Sanford probe: Court lets House join suit

The S.C. Supreme Court will hear arguments Oct. 19 about whether legislators should get the initial findings of an ethics panel investigating Gov. Mark Sanford.

The court scheduled the arguments after attorneys for the S.C. House told the court Monday that legislators should get those preliminary findings.

Sanford opposes their release, and filed suit with the state's highest court last week to prevent the state Ethics Commission from giving them to legislators. The court agreed Monday to allow the House to join as a party to Sanford's suit.

Sanford contends the commission's initial report, similar to an indictment, could be used to undermine him politically and legally if given to lawmakers, who are threatening to impeach and remove the embattled two-term, Republican governor.

The preliminary report will not contain his response to the allegations, Sanford said. He also argues state law only allows those with prosecutorial powers the right to see such reports.

In a separate court filing Monday, State Ethics Commission attorneys argued the court should dismiss Sanford's suit. In part, the commission argued Sanford had filed suit prematurely.

The Ethics Commission began investigating Sanford's use of state planes and other resources in August, prompted by media scrutiny following the governor's secret five-day trip to Argentina in June. Sanford, the married father of four, returned to acknowledge he had misled staffers about his whereabouts so he could conduct an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman.

Sanford argues only the Ethics Commission's final report - reached after the commission endorses or rejects the validity of the evidence in the preliminary report - should be made public.

House attorneys argued the state and U.S. constitutions give the House the sole authority to impeach a governor. That's a form of prosecution, meaning the House should get the preliminary ethics report.

A handful of House members have said they plan to introduce bills to impeach Sanford for leaving the state unannounced and lying to his staff about where he was. Those two actions were "serious misconduct," one of the reasons the state Constitution says a governor can be impeached, the lawmakers say.

Upholding Sanford's request - to keep the investigation's preliminary findings secret - also could encourage other public officials to seek ethics investigations to delay their removal from office, House attorneys argue. "Such an interpretation would clearly thwart the constitutionally mandated separation of powers and cannot be allowed by this court," the attorneys wrote.

State Ethics Commission attorneys argued the court should dismiss Sanford's lawsuit.

The nine-member Ethics Commission has yet to decide whether to turn over the report to lawmakers, its attorneys said. That decision will be made only when the report is finished and only if the House has started impeachment proceedings.

"Until the report is prepared and issued," Ethics Commission attorneys wrote, "the governor's allegations are only speculative and conjectural."

In any event, ethics attorneys said, the House can get information in the report once impeachment proceedings are under way by subpoenaing witnesses and testimony.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said Sanford was stalling and reneging on his pledge to allow an open investigation.

"If the governor succeeds in breaking his promise to keep this process transparent, it will cause all of this to drag on and on," Harrell said. "It is time to get this behind us and move on."

Sanford's attorney, Butch Bowers, has until noon today to respond to the House and Ethics Commission arguments. He declined to comment Monday.

Sanford spokesman Ben Fox said the governor is committed to a transparent investigation.

"It simply flies in the face of fundamental fairness and due process to have one side's arguments fully aired and made public," Fox said in a written statement, "and the other side not allowed the same full and fair hearing - and we believe short-circuiting the legal process for the sake of political payback is more than unwise, it's dangerous."

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