Gov. Mark Sanford scored a major victory Thursday when a panel of House lawmakers considering his impeachment decided three-quarters of the ethics charges lodged against the two-term Republican do not merit his removal from office.
Instead, lawmakers appear more likely to censure the governor - officially condemning him for misconduct - for his secret five-day Argentina tryst when the Legislature returns in January.
The S.C. State Ethics Commission has charged Sanford with 37 counts of breaking state ethics laws.
But the House impeachment panel took just 31 minutes Thursday to decide 28 of those charges did not meet the "serious" crimes or misconduct standard the state Constitution requires for impeachment.
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The committee said Tuesday it likely would ignore half of nine other ethics charges relating to Sanford's use of state-owned aircraft for personal or political travel.
Lawmakers still could impeach Sanford for serious misconduct because he left the state without informing other officials where he was and misled his staff.
Sanford also still faces the possibility of up to $74,000 in fines from those 37 charges when an S.C. State Ethics Commission panel debates his case in January.
S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster also is reviewing those ethics charges to determine whether there is any evidence of crimes but has yet to announce a decision.
Among the charges the House removed from the scope of its inquiry were 10 counts of improper use of campaign money and 18 counts of illegally purchasing business class tickets for state trade trips.
"Much of it, we don't believe, constitutes a violation at all," said committee chairman state Rep. James Harrison, R-Richland. "The ones that might constitute a violation don't rise to the level of impeachment."
Committee members said Tuesday they think some of Sanford's use of state-owned aircraft - in a handful of cases - comes close to violating state law. The committee could vote on those charges when it wraps up its work, as early as Monday.
Harrison has introduced a measure to censure Sanford this week, which he said was another way to reprimand the governor if lawmakers reject impeachment.
Sanford's attorneys praised the House impeachment panel.
"We are pleased with the committee's decision to throw out 28 of the 37 ethics allegations, and we appreciate the due consideration the committee has given to these matters," attorney Butch Bowers said in a statement. "This decision confirms that Governor Sanford has followed the letter and spirit of the law.
"We look forward to resolving this matter quickly and showing, as the committee's actions (Thursday) demonstrate, that this administration has been a consistent ally of the taxpayer."
Attorney Ross Garber - hired to represent the Office of Governor, as opposed to representing Sanford - agreed the charges did not justify the first impeachment of a governor in S.C. history.
State Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, agreed Sanford's use of business-class airfare may not be worthy of impeachment. But, he added, it remains a "conviction of hypocrisy" for Sanford, who cultivated a political reputation as a penny-pincher and critic of wasteful legislative spending.
Harrison agreed with Sanford's attorneys that state law prohibits state employees from flying business class but likely allowed "public officials," including constitutional officers and possibly Cabinet heads, to fly business class.
"I don't believe (Sanford) did it with the knowledge it was wrong," Harrison said.
Monday - in what could be the committee's final meeting - lawmakers will examine the 2008 trade trip to Argentina during which Sanford met his lover.
In June, Sanford reimbursed the state $3,300 for part of the cost of that trip. A weeklong State Law Enforcement inquiry in July cleared the governor of criminal wrongdoing in connection with state spending on trips when Sanford met his lover.
The House panel has submitted questions to the governor and state Commerce Department about the South American trip - including whether it generated any business activity - and has asked for itineraries, guest lists and other documents.
State Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, one of four co-sponsors of the impeachment resolution, said lawmakers may step up their inquiry if they feel answers about the Argentina trip are less than forthcoming.
Sanford requested the Buenos Aires trip, according to Commerce Department e-mails, and asked for a light schedule. Commerce said the trip generated no business leads, and the U.S. government did not condone official trade dealings with Argentina's government at the time.
"If they insult our intelligence," Delleney said, "subpoenas will be issued."
So far, the committee has relied on written statements from Sanford, his staff and others and not compelled any testimony.
Both Delleney and Harrison said the committee could vote on impeachment next week, with the full Judiciary Committee voting on the matter the following week.
While lawmakers said they are weighing evidence and have yet to make up their minds, censure is becoming a more likely option for lawmakers unwilling to allow Sanford to escape without official reprimand.
"I think it's worth considering," said state Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville.