COLUMBIA, S.C. - Lawmakers debating whether to impeach South Carolina's governor challenged claims Monday that a 2008 taxpayer-funded trip where he saw his Argentine mistress was legitimate state business.
After confessing the affair in June, Gov. Mark Sanford reimbursed the state for $3,300 in travel expense tied to the Buenos Aires trip a year earlier.
"It's just obvious that this trip was a personal trip and state business was kind of thrown in as a cover," state Rep. Greg Delleney said during a fourth day of impeachment hearings.
Delleney, R-Chester, wrote the impeachment resolution that says the married Sanford was derelict in his duties when he abandoned the state in June of this year to secretly spend five days with mistress Maria Belen Chapur. The affair became public when he disappeared and his staff said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Sanford's chief counsel, Swati Patel, argued that the 2008 trip was proposed first by the state Department of Commerce, not Sanford.
That wasn't enough to convince House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Harrison.
"You can make mistakes by reading between the lines, but it does appear to me it's more likely that the governor set up the Argentina trip in 2008 for reasons other than economic development," Harrison, R-Columbia, said.
Harrison's subcommittee could decide as early as Wednesday whether to move forward with impeachment, approve a censure resolution condemning Sanford's actions or do nothing at all.
The impeachment resolution says Sanford left no one in charge while he "directed members of his staff in a manner that caused them to deceive and mislead the public officials" about where he was.
During two emotional interviews with The Associated Press, Sanford gave plenty of details about his affair and has insisted he was in touch with his office through a back channel. But he has refused to provide specifics.
The subcommittee will meet again Wednesday and will eventually make a recommendation to the full Judiciary Committee, which will decide whether to send the resolution to the House. A two-thirds vote to impeach there would send it to the Senate, which would act as a jury for a trial.
The impeachment resolution does not mention the 2008 Commerce trip where Sanford said his relationship with the woman became something more than a friendship, but it came up during Monday's hearing. Sanford and Chapur first met in Uruguay in 2001 and carried on a long-running correspondence before the 2008 trip. The governor has been invited to the hearings but has not attended.
Commerce officials originally said Sanford requested meetings in Buenos Aires because he didn't want to spend time hunting with Commerce Secretary Joe Taylor, but hundreds of e-mails provided under a Freedom of Information request showed that Sanford went hunting anyway and then headed to Buenos Aires at taxpayer expense.
In July, The Associated Press reported that Sanford had pushed Commerce officials for a packed schedule during the Argentina portion of that trip but was adamant in keeping an evening free in Buenos Aires. Sanford reimbursed the state $3,300 for related expenses.
Sanford also faces an ethics hearing on 37 civil charges related to flights he took on state planes, high-priced commercial airline tickets and reimbursements Sanford made to himself from his campaign funds.
Those charges have been discussed during the impeachment debate, but the panel by Monday had decided to only continue considering five instances in which Sanford is accused of using state-owned planes for personal or political purposes. They include a flight to a donor's birthday party and trips to Republican events.
Sanford's lawyer, Ross Garber, said in a statement afterward that it was appropriate for the committee to dismiss most of the ethics charges as grounds for impeachment.
"The remaining five charges clearly fall well below the standard for impeachment," Garber said.