SC House: Sanford probe report must be released

COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House told the state Supreme Court on Monday it should order the State Ethics Commission to turn over details of an investigation into Gov. Mark Sanford when they become available.

Meanwhile, the commission told the court the issue needs to be dismissed altogether because it is premature.The commission said in August it would investigate Sanford’s travel, including the use of state planes for personal and political purposes. Sanford’s travel became an issue after he disappeared from the state in June for a five-day rendezvous with an Argentine woman he called his soul mate.

House Democrats and Republicans have overwhelmingly called on him to resign, and some have already drafted an impeachment resolution. That resolution can’t be acted upon until the House returns to session in January — unless Legislative leaders decide take it up earlier. House Speaker Bobby Harrell has said that won’t happen until the House reviews an Ethics Commission investigative report.

Last week, Sanford’s attorneys asked the court to bar releasing the report to the House. They argued the report will damage the governor’s case and break a law barring the release of a report that must remain confidential.In his court filing Monday, Ethics Commission Director Herb Hayden said a report won’t be completed until about the last week of October.

Because there is no report, the Ethics Commission said Sanford’s arguments shouldn’t be heard by the court.Sanford’s case also should be dismissed because it “hinges upon events that have not occurred and may never occur,” the commission’s lawyer said in Monday’s filing. It noted the court initially refused earlier this year to get involved in the fight over federal stimulus cash because the Legislature had not taken final steps to force Sanford to request the money.

Sanford also has been assured no report would be released before he has a chance to argue that it shouldn’t be given to the House. That decision can be challenged in the state Court of Appeals. The commission said Sanford needs to use those channels before bringing an argument to the state’s highest court.

Sanford’s lawyers face a Tuesday deadline to respond to the Ethics Commission’s argument. The Supreme Court scheduled oral arguments in the governor’s case for Oct. 19 in Columbia.

The commission argued that the House ultimately has the power to subpoena whatever it wants from the case.That’s a point the House emphasized Monday as House lawyers claimed broad powers to get any document should they decide to pursue impeachment despite state laws that keep ethics inquiries confidential. It was the first time the House has asserted in court its authority to get documents it may need to impeach Sanford.

The “House is entitled to access all relevant information that it so desires, and that access can only be limited by the South Carolina Constitution and the United States Constitution,” the House’s court filing said.

Harrell said Sanford is backing away from promises to keep the investigation open.

“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 in a news release.

“This political maneuver to delay the process and keep the people from seeing the facts is not what South Carolina needs right now.”

Sanford spokesman Ben Fox said Sanford wants transparency and “a complete and impartial hearing of all the facts.”

Allowing one side’s arguments to be aired and made public without the other side’s is unfair, Fox said. And “short-circuiting the legal process for the sake of political payback is more than unwise, it’s dangerous.”Sanford and legislators have been at odds for most of his two terms in office. His second, final four-year term ends in January 2011.

The commission’s filings Monday included a Sept. 8 letter from Hayden telling Sanford’s lawyers they will be notified of any issue that could result in charges moving forward and would be offered “the opportunity to present evidence, facts or arguments regarding such issues” and Sanford’s response “will be included in any written response presented to the commission.”