More Trouble For Sanford: How Will It Play Out?

This time, it has nothing to do with Argentina, or the scandal surrounding his affair, but Gov. Mark Sanford is in more trouble this week.

A state senator's subcommittee investigation (one in which only one senator participated) found that Sanford broke state laws by flying business or first class on trips to London and China in 2006 and 2007 (state law requires the governor to seek the cheapest available fares), following an AP report on the fares in July. The state senator who conducted the investigation, David Thomas (R), has also promised to investigate another report from the AP, posted yesterday, that Sanford violated more laws by taking personal and political trips on a state airplane.

And that could mean trouble for the governor.

The findings may constitute grounds for impeachment, Thomas said, though he didn't make any recommendation on whether the legislature should do so. (Note: Thomas is also running for Congress--he announced in June that he'd take on fellow Republican, Rep. Bob Inglis, for the fourth district seat.)

"It could be perceived, if it's significant enough and a case can be made of it, to constitute a case for possible impeachment," the AP quotes him as saying.

So what's the likelihood Sanford will be forced from the governor's mansion? And, if he is, how will it play out?

Impeachment may not be the likeliest scenario. The state legislature is out of session, and it won't come back until January. It could reconvene at the agreement of the Speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate, but that looks a bit murky, as the resolution that adjourned the legislature in May lists the reasons it can return before January, and impeachment isn't one of them.

"Impeachment wouldn't be the easiest thing to do right now," a State House aide said.

What could happen, though, is an investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), which already examined Sanford's trips to Argentina for violations of state law as numerous politicians called for a probe, and found no evidence that laws were broken.

It's unclear how much interest SLED has in opening one.

SLED Director Reggie Lloyd, who was appointed by Sanford, said he was concerned that the division was being dragged into the political arena. "We're a criminal investigative agency...I just want to be sure we stay in that lane," Lloyd said, worried about setting "new standards" for SLED investigating political figures.

But, if the AP's reporting and legal analysis is to be believed, Thomas will find that Sanford violated more laws with a handful of trips on a state plane, when he follows up on that story as promised: the AP outlines Sanford's travel on state plane(s) for personal and political trips, which, according to AP, constitute crimes.

Another official, subcommittee (well, really just Thomas) report of broken laws could hit soon.

And that would seem to fall under law enforcement's purview. They're allegations of state laws--not ethics guidelines--being broken. They're criminal allegations--even if Thomas, a politician, investigated it, and even if politicians call on SLED to investigate, giving those allegations a distinctly political flavor.

So while Sanford's days may appear to be numbered, it really depends. If the news of possible violations involving a state plane have generated interest in impeachment or a broader legislative inquiry--and if Thomas finds that the AP was right--we'll have to wait and see whether that interest holds up in January (assuming there are no legal maneuvers to bring the State House back into session before then).

It also depends on whether law enforcement opens a new investigation, and perhaps on whether pressure mounts on SLED to do so. SLED has already looked at Sanford's travel--though only five trips, and not the ones Thomas looked at. At Thomas's subcommittee hearing, Lloyd reiterated that Sanford had broken no laws on the trips SLED examined. It's possible that Lloyd, weary of lawmakers calling for the governor's job, and of a politically charged environment in which criminal investigations are demanded by political enemies, wouldn't want to delve back into Sanford's air travel habits just now. A call and e-mail to SLED, asking about the possibility of a new investigation, were not returned.

We'll have to wait and see whether there's interest, whether SLED comes under pressure (political or otherwise) to open one, and whether South Carolina's lawmakers really want a probe. All that will determine whether these allegations are heavy enough to bring Sanford down, or at least into another investigation, this summer and beyond.

UPDATE: SLED spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons replied, via email, that SLED has not been requested to look into these allegations, but that it will review any information presented to the agency that rises to the level of reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed.