S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster said Wednesday his involvement in the investigation into allegations against Gov. Mark Sanford is not a political conflict of interest.
Some political observers have suggested McMaster should step aside, removing himself from the Sanford investigation.
McMaster, who is seeking the 2010 Republican nomination for governor, is reviewing the 37 ethics charges against Sanford. McMaster will determine whether any of those individual charges - or the sum of the charges - merit criminal prosecution.
Those who have suggested McMaster should recuse himself - and name a special prosecutor - note having Sanford serve out his term could benefit McMaster.
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If Sanford is removed, then Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who also is seeking the GOP nomination, would become governor. That would allow Bauer to run in 2010 as an incumbent. Even a short stint as governor would help Bauer's fundraising and allow the 40-year-old lieutenant governor to test-drive the office.
McMaster repeated Wednesday that politics will play no role in his review of the case. McMaster has been involved in the case since a review of the two-term Republican governor's travel began in June, after Sanford returned from a secret trip to Argentina to see his lover.
"Politics and law enforcement do not mix," McMaster said. "There are so many political angles (being raised as potential concerns), but my belief is that this office is up to the job and will make judgments based on the law. We will do the right thing."
The right thing, some argue, would be for McMaster to appoint a special prosecutor.
Dick Harpootlian, a former prosecutor and head of the S.C. Democratic Party, told The Greenville News this week that McMaster should recuse himself. Ken Gaines, a criminal litigation professor at the USC School of Law, agreed, concluding McMaster's involvement might raise questions of political motive.
McMaster said his office is reviewing the "voluminous" investigative report issued by the State Ethics Commission.
The 1,300-page document is a review of Sanford's travel and use of campaign money. The probe determined:
- There were 18 instances in which Sanford flew first- or business class in violation of state law, which requires an urgent reason to use a pricey ticket.
- On 10 occasions Sanford used campaign money, totaling almost $3,000, to pay for personal expenses, which is barred by state law. The largest expense - $864.90 in November 2008 - was to attend a Republican governors meeting in Miami and a hunting trip in Ireland.
- There were nine instances Sanford or family members used state aircraft for personal or political travel, which is barred by law.
If found guilty of all 37 alleged ethics violations, Sanford could be fined $74,000.
McMaster's office must determine whether Sanford broke any criminal laws in addition to the alleged ethics violations.
McMaster also could determine whether the 37 alleged violations constitute a pattern of "dishonesty and bad faith." If he determines there was a pattern, McMaster could charge Sanford with misconduct in office.
However, to file any charges, McMaster said his office will have to determine Sanford had "criminal intent."
"I want to be clear: I'm not saying anyone is guilty of anything," McMaster said, explaining the options he has as a prosecutor.
McMaster said his office will work independently and deliberately to review the Ethics Commission's investigative report.
A House subcommittee taking up impeachment plans to have its work wrapped up by Christmas, and the Ethics Commission plans to try Sanford in early January.
But McMaster said he has no timetable for a decision on whether to file criminal charges.
"I can't say how long it will take," McMaster said. "But all things will be considered."