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Tax dollars won't pay governor's legal fees

Gov. Mark Sanford will have to tap his campaign fund to pay $28,000 in legal bills after the state attorney general's office denied a request to use taxpayer money to pay the bills.

A government watchdog group also has asked the S.C. State Ethics Commission to revisit a 1993 ruling that allows elected officials to use campaign money to pay their legal expenses.

In total, Sanford - a two-term Republican governor who vanished for five days this summer and confessed to an affair when he reappeared - has incurred $213,000 in legal bills to fight off impeachment.

That includes $185,000 Sanford's campaign paid Columbia private attorneys Butch Bowers and Kevin Hall in the last three months, according to his campaign filings. Sanford still has $1.4 million in his campaign account.

In November, Sanford's office hired impeachment specialist Ross Garber to represent the office of governor - as opposed to Sanford, personally - while a House panel weighed removing the governor from office. Garber previously represented former Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland during a corruption scandal.

In a December letter to the attorney general, Sanford's chief legal counsel Swati Patel argued the state should pay Garber's $28,248.92 bill. The impeachment debate was a public issue and could have long-term consequences on the balance of power between governor and legislature, Patel said.

But the attorney general's office disagreed, denying Sanford's request.

"It is our opinion that these matters arose from personal conduct and not as a result of any official actions by the Governor," Chief Deputy Attorney General John McIntosh wrote in a response dated Tuesday. "This appears to be an expenditure not for a public purpose but for a private purpose."

Attorney General Henry McMaster is one of four Republicans seeking to succeed Sanford in office.

Patel's letter argues the expense was justified.

"While impeachment certainly involves the investigation and potential remove of the Governor for actions he took in his personal capacity," Patel wrote, "it also very clearly involves the political and governmental process, with official consequences to the institutions of government - not just the individual occupying it at the moment."

Sanford spokesman Ben Fox said Garber, whose invoice bills 229.8 hours, will not be paid with state money. Garber's invoice also notes the work was done at a discounted rate. His bill would have been $142,858 at his full rate.

"Rather than contest the (attorney general's) decision, the decision was made to pay Ross from the Governor's campaign account," Fox said by e-mail.

But John Crangle of the government watchdog group Common Cause said Sanford should not be allowed to use his campaign money to pay his attorneys. Crangle has asked the S.C. State Ethics Commission to revisit the issue.

State law only allows campaign funds to be spent on "ordinary" and "necessary" expenses related to holding office, Crangle said.

"It's not an ordinary expense because this is unprecedented. It's not necessary either," Crangle said. "It seems to me this is a personal use.

"He's a millionaire. He can pay for his own legal bills."

However, Ethics Commission counsel Cathy Hazelwood said a 1993 ruling allowed a similar use. That opinion says "ordinary and necessary" is not defined, but legal expenses directly related to holding office can be paid from campaign money.

Sanford still faces a hearing on Ethics Commission charges he violated 37 state ethics rules. Those charges carry a maximum of $74,000 in fines.

A hearing date has yet to be set, and Hazelwood said she did not know when it would be scheduled. Executive director Herb Hayden said earlier this week the commission's docket was backed up, delaying Sanford's hearing.