"Much like other public officials have used the state plane appropriately, so has Gov. Sanford," attorney Butch Bowers told a panel of state legislators. "Nothing here rises anywhere near the level of what would be an impeachable offense."
Bowers addressed the seven members of the House Judiciary Committee in the second of at least four meetings they plan to hold on issues including the Republican governor's travel on state-owned aircraft.
Sanford's travel and campaign spending have been under scrutiny since he returned in June from a five-day rendezvous with his Argentine lover and confessed a yearlong affair. Since then, investigations by The Associated Press found high-priced travel on commercial planes despite state low-cost travel requirements; use of state planes for what appear to be personal and political purposes; and unreported private plane flights provided by friends and donors.
Besides a resolution accusing the governor of abandoning the state, legislators are reviewing 37 state Ethics Commission charges on the state plane travel, high-priced commercial airline travel and reimbursing himself from campaign funds.
Sanford has brushed aside repeated calls to step down before his final term ends in January 2011, and his lawyers say they'll answer the ethics questions at separate hearings on them early next year.
Eight U.S. governors have been removed by impeachment, and the only two removed in the last 80 years each faced criminal charges. Standards for impeachment vary by state.
If the panel decides the impeachment measure is worthy, it moves to the full Judiciary Committee. If it passes 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 to remove Sanford from office, which would also require a two-thirds vote.
On all nine of the flights questioned by the Ethics Commission, Sanford's attorneys pointed out that the governor flew either to or from events to which he was invited in his official role as governor, not purely for personal reasons.
Bowers said the political trips on state planes - including a September 2005 Aiken County Republican Party dinner where his attorney said Sanford discussed legislative priorities - constitute official business because the governor was invited as the state's top officer.
"Clearly, it's part of the governor's capacity as governor to advocate for his legislative objections," Bowers said. "It's clearly part of his duties as governor to talk about his plans for the upcoming legislative session."
In addition, Kevin Hall, another attorney for the governor, argued that several questioned trips were not all personal, but also for economic development.
On Nov. 17, 2006, Sanford flew from Columbia to Mount Pleasant, where he attended a book signing at an Applebee's restaurant owned by a franchisee that employs about 1,500 people throughout South Carolina, Hall said. Afterward, Sanford flew to Aiken for a birthday party for a campaign contributor who Hall said is also a major area employer.
"This is what elected officials so often do," Hall said, couching both legs of the trip as crucial outreach to South Carolina's ability to attract and keep jobs. "Governors do it all the time."
But Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, took issue with that notion, arguing that the travel had nothing to do with job growth.
"Is this a payback to a good political supporter?" Smith asked.
Several days after those trips, Sanford used a state-owned plane to fly with his family from a National Governors Association meeting in West Virginia to a family vacation in Georgia. In this case, Hall said, Sanford had already scheduled the family vacation and might have actually saved state funds - and certainly saved time - by flying directly to Georgia, rather than stopping in Columbia and continuing by car, possibly with a security detail in tow.
"We're talking about impeaching a governor over whether a plane staying in the air for approximately 20 minutes longer was a better choice than ground transportation that would have taken much longer," Hall said. "It's not any more interesting than that."
The panel reconvenes Thursday to discuss Sanford's commercial airline travel, reimbursements from campaign funds and failure to report trips on private planes. Members also voted today to debate Sanford's 2008 trip to Argentina, an economic development mission during which the governor has said his relationship with his mistress first became sexual.
Sanford repaid the state more than $3,000 for that trip after news of his affair became public.
The committee also said it has asked more questions of Sanford's chief of staff, Scott English, including whether any staff members were able to get in touch with the governor while he was in Argentina. The committee also asked State Law Enforcement Division chief Reggie Lloyd how agents attempted to track Sanford's whereabouts and what response SLED got from calls and text messages to the governor's cell phone.
The answers to all questions are due by 10 a.m. Friday.