COLUMBIA, S.C. - A cool-headed legal debate has replaced the once-passionate calls to oust Gov. Mark Sanford that began after his tearful summertime admission that he disappeared from the state to pursue an extramarital affair in Argentina.
A panel on Tuesday began debating whether his failure to inform his staff of his whereabouts and put anyone in charge rise to the high standard of impeachment, usually reserved for office-holders who break the law.
Two proponents of a measure to remove Sanford likened his five-day absence to a soldier leaving his post. But others on a seven-member legislative panel questioned whether the two-term Republican's actions rose to a high enough level to warrant removal.
"To speak about dereliction of duty, absence without leave, abandoning one's post are terms that ordinarily are reserved for those who are in uniform and who are not civilian citizens of our state and nation," said Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Prosperity. "It may constitute something. But it doesn't constitute dereliction of duty because those are military terms."
Sanford returned in June to confess to an affair that shattered his marriage and dimmed a once-bright political future. He told reporters in Charleston on Tuesday that it's obvious he wanted to keep an affair secret.
"Yes, I had a moral failing. I was gone for five days. I failed my marriage on a number of fronts. I mean, we've been through all of that. I don't know how many times one apologizes for that," he said. "How many times do we want to say the obvious? The nature of having an affair is you want to hide it."
Later investigations found the governor may have violated state ethics laws for travel and campaign finances, and he faces 37 civil charges that he used his office to personally benefit himself. Those charges weren't discussed Tuesday, but they'll be added to the panel's debate at later hearings.
Sanford has brushed aside repeated calls to step down before his tenure ends in January 2011, and his lawyers say they'll answer the ethics questions at separate hearings on them in January.
The four Republicans and one Democrat who co-sponsored the impeachment measure contend Sanford neglected his office and was wrong to mislead staffers into thinking he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when he left the country.
Their measure says in part that Sanford's "conduct under these circumstances has brought extreme dishonor and shame to the Office of the Governor of South Carolina and to the reputation of the State of South Carolina."
The committee will meet at least three more times before deciding whether to forward the measure to the House Judiciary Committee. On Tuesday, lawmakers said they would add the ethics charges to their deliberations, greatly broadening the issues they'll deal with in the next two weeks.
The resolution's chief sponsor said Sanford evaded his security detail when he left the state and should have told the lieutenant governor he was leaving.
"He left his post, he left his state. He left his country without notifying anyone in authority," said state Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester. "He was AWOL."
The governor's lawyer said in a later statement that those don't constitute "a serious crime or serious misconduct in office that has corrupted the system of government in South Carolina."
"This standard is intentionally high," attorney Ross Garber said in a statement Tuesday. "The Governor's temporary absence from the state in June does not meet this high standard."
Delleney conceded Sanford hadn't committeed a serious crime but said lawmakers decide what the threshold is for "serious misconduct," the second element allowed for impeachment.
"Impeachment is a political process. It is not a legal process," he said.
The ethics probe followed a series of Associated Press investigations that showed the governor had for years used state airplanes for political and personal trips, flown in pricey commercial airline seats despite a low-cost travel requirement and failed to disclose trips on planes owned by friends and donors. The State newspaper in Columbia also questioned whether Sanford properly reimbursed himself from his campaign cash.
If the impeachment measure passes the Judiciary Committee with a majority vote from its 25 members, it would head to the House floor in January for debate. A two-thirds vote in favor would result in Sanford's suspension.
The Senate, acting as jury, then would decide whether Sanford would be removed from office, which would also require a two-thirds vote.