Sanford's little lie masks a much bigger one

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COLUMBIA, S.C. - Six bronze stars punctuate the smooth granite walls of the copper-domed State House. Each marks a scar left by the cannons of invading Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's bombardment of the capital in the final months of the Civil War.

By last Thursday, Gov. Mark Sanford was feeling much like the building in which he had held sway for the past seven years - battered and bruised.

Two days earlier, on June 16, an override of Sanford's veto of new regulations on the payday lending industry capped what had been an especially grueling legislative session. Earlier in the month, he had lost a court battle over what he thought was a state's right to refuse $700 million in federal stimulus money.

To friends and aides, it was clear the governor needed a break.

That Thursday afternoon, a black Chevy Suburban outfitted with blue police lights pulled up outside the governor's mansion - a white stucco antebellum building with a low parapet that once served as the officers' quarters for the Arsenal Military Academy. Into the back seat, Sanford tossed a sleeping bag, a pair of running shoes, a ball cap, a canvas bag and a pair of green hiking shorts.

Sanford is an Eagle Scout. So when he made a vague reference to staff about hiking on the Appalachian Trail, no one had reason to doubt him.

But if the governor were really going hiking, why would he need his passport?

In truth, Sanford had already strayed from the path. The hiking story was just the latest little lie in a yearlong campaign to cover up an even bigger one.

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Marshall C. Sanford Jr. is about as lame as a lame-duck governor can be. Term-limited and marginalized by opponents within his own party, the 49-year-old Republican was essentially waiting out his last 18 months in office as people speculated about his presidential prospects in 2012.

Sanford had been known to take off after a legislative session, to decompress and escape what he calls "the bubble" of life in the capital. So it wasn't surprising that it took until Monday for his absence to become conspicuous.

That morning, a source suggested that an Associated Press reporter call Republican state Sen. Jake Knotts and ask about the governor's whereabouts. Knotts told the AP that no one had seen or heard from Sanford since the previous Thursday.

That afternoon, the AP asked Sanford's staff if anyone had heard from the governor. The answer was no.

No phone calls.

No e-mails.

No text messages.

Around 1 p.m., the AP called Jenny Sanford, the governor's wife of nearly 20 years and the force behind most of his congressional and gubernatorial campaigns.

"He was writing something and wanted some space to get away from the kids," she said from the family's beach house on Sullivan's Island.

Mrs. Sanford said she had no idea where her husband was, but insisted that she was unconcerned. Others did not share her sentiments.

In response to media inquiries, Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer released a statement.

"Gov. Sanford is taking some time away from the office this week to recharge after the stimulus battle and the legislative session, and to work on a couple of projects that have fallen by the wayside," read the statement, sent around 2:30 p.m. "We are not going to discuss the specifics of his travel arrangements or his security arrangements."

Even state police couldn't locate the governor - though they tried.

When he left the mansion last Thursday, Sanford dismissed his security detail. The Suburban has a locator device in it, but Reggie Lloyd, chief of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, said it was not turned on.

Later Monday, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer's office said Sanford's staff claimed the governor had been in contact with chief of staff Scott English. But the governor's office backtracked on that, saying there had been no communication.

"I cannot take lightly that his staff has not had communication with him for more than four days, and that no one, including his own family, knows his whereabouts," said Bauer, a Republican whose relationship with Sanford is generally cool, but who has been spare in his criticism of the governor during their two terms in office together.

To some, leaving the state essentially rudderless was not the worst part of it. A man who seemed to always put family first had been absent from sons Marshall, Landon, Bolton and Blake on Father's Day.

"It's one thing for the boys to go off by themselves, but on Father's Day to leave your family behind? That's erratic," said Senate Minority Leader John Land, a Democrat.

Things seemed to abate Monday night when Sawyer said the governor was hiking the Appalachian Trail. But the quiet didn't last long.

Around 9:30 Tuesday morning, Sawyer issued another statement to the AP. He said that Sanford had called English to check in.

"It would be fair to say the governor was somewhat taken aback by all of the interest this trip has gotten," Sawyer wrote. "Given the circumstances and the attention this has garnered, the governor communicated to us that he plans on returning to the office tomorrow."

According to Sawyer, Sanford still did not divulge where he had been, and no one asked. But it soon became clear that he had not been hiking.

Around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, CNN's Political Ticker reported that the black Suburban had been found in a parking lot at Columbia Metropolitan Airport, the camping gear still inside.

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At 6:15 a.m. Wednesday, Gina Smith, a reporter from The State newspaper, was standing in the waiting area at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Since December, the Columbia newspaper had been sitting on a stack of e-mails, which it says were sent anonymously. They were purportedly personal correspondence between Sanford and a woman in Argentina named "Maria."

"You are my love ... something hard to believe even for myself as it's also a kind of impossible love, not only because of distance but situation," one message to Sanford, dated July 9, read. "Sometimes you don't choose things, they just happen. ... I can't redirect my feelings and I am very happy with mine towards you."

The paper then received an anonymous tip that Sanford had been spotted on a flight to Buenos Aires, but had no idea when he might be returning. Acting on a hunch, Smith staked out the airport.

She was craning her neck, squinting as she scanned the crowd. When she spotted Sanford, any doubts Smith might have had about the e-mails' authenticity seemed to evaporate.

The tip was so sketchy that the paper had decided not to send a photographer with Smith. Acting reflexively, she snapped a quick photo with her digital camera, then called out to Sanford.

"Governor!" she shouted. "Everybody's been worried about where you've been. ... Have you been on the Appalachian Trail?"

Clearly flummoxed, the governor invited Smith to sit down with him in the waiting area. According to Smith, a visibly deflated Sanford gazed absently into the distance, his mouth opening, then closing, as if he were at a loss for words.

Sanford acknowledged that while he had planned to go hiking, he had actually been to Argentina. Then, in what now appears to have been a last, desperate attempt to delay the inevitable, the governor launched into a ramble about other "adventure trips" he had taken to Turkey, Greece and other parts of South America.

Smith asked whether Sanford had been alone in Buenos Aires. Yes, he replied.

When she pushed the issue, Sanford abruptly ended the interview and left.

About four hours later, Sanford's office announced that he would be holding a press conference at 2 p.m. beneath the vaulted brick ceiling in the Doric-columned lower lobby of the State House, just feet from the governor's suite.

Starting a half-hour late, Sanford hemmed and hawed for several minutes, as he had done that morning with Smith.

"I guess where I'm trying to go with this is there are moral absolutes, and that God's law indeed is there to protect you from yourself," he told the stunned assembly. "And there are consequences if you breach that.

"This press conference is a consequence."

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Whether Sanford has come clean with the whole truth remains to be seen. If any of his staff, family or confidantes really knew where he was during his lost week, none is talking.

Former aide Tom Davis - who stood beside Sanford during the news conference and whom Sanford singled out for a special apology - told CBS News Thursday morning that he had no idea about the affair or the trip to Argentina.

"The 30 years I've known Mark Sanford," he said, "this blew me away."

At his news conference, Sanford also singled out longtime friend and spiritual counselor Warren "Cubby" Culbertson.

Standing outside his Columbia home, Culbertson declined to tell the AP whether he knew of Sanford's South America trip. He did say that Sanford called him some time ago for advice, and that "we've been kind of walking down this road together since then."

Whatever lies Sanford told along the way, Culbertson said he is confident his friend "is going to try to change."

"There's an element of darkness out there that's undeniable," Culbertson said. "And it's bigger than us."


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