COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford on Tuesday justified his use of state planes for personal trips in which he often brought along his wife and four sons, saying his taxpayer-funded travel was no different than that of his predecessors.
"I've got a busy life, and I've tried as best I can – within the context of the current mess-up, that has been more than well-chronicled, and more than well talked about – to be a reasonable father, while at the same time, being a good governor," Sanford said in response to questions from reporters after a Cabinet meeting. "I can't tell you the number of sporting events I've missed, of theirs."
An Associated Press investigation found that Sanford used state aircraft for personal and political trips, contrary to state law regarding official use. Records reviewed by AP showed that since he took office in 2003, the two-term Republican has taken trips on state aircraft to locations of his children's sporting events, hair and dentist appointments, political party gatherings and a birthday party for a campaign donor.
On many occasions, records showed, the governor mingled his non-official travels with official business. He used the state plane in March 2006 to travel from Myrtle Beach to Columbia at a cost of $1,265 – when his calendar showed his only appointment in Columbia was "personal time" at his favorite discount hair salon. He had flown to Myrtle Beach on a private plane and attended a county GOP event.
Sanford said Tuesday the dentist appointment was scheduled after he chipped a tooth and was part of a trip to meet with a television news director.
Sanford, 49, has been under increased scrutiny since admitting in June to having a mistress in Argentina. He's vowed to stay in office and says he is trying to reconcile with his wife, who has moved out of the governor's mansion to live at the family's beach house with their sons. The governor said Tuesday the couple were not divorcing.
The governor has made a political career out of being outwardly thrifty – known to demand that state employees use both sides of Post-It notes. He has frequently railed against government spending, and attempted for months to block federal stimulus money for South Carolina schools. In Congress, he was known for returning his housing allowance and sleeping on a futon in his House office.
Last month, the AP also revealed Sanford had flown first class and business class on commercial airlines at taxpayer expense, despite a law requiring lowest-cost travel. Records showed Sanford, who once criticized other state officials for costly travel, charged the state more than $37,600 for first-class and business-class flights overseas since November 2005. Other state employees flew in the back of the plane at a fraction of the price, according to the documents.
Sanford said overseas flight arrangements were made by state Department of Commerce officials.
"It's been the long-standing practice of the Department of Commerce to get governors a business-class ticket. ... I'm not trying to defend the practice, but I'm just saying, that has been the practice, and there is some level of common sense to it," Sanford said. "If you're going to step straight into business meetings that have significant economic consequence for the people of our state, you need to have gotten some level of sleep the night before. ... You want to be somewhat coherent and somewhat rested before you step into meetings that literally can impact whether tens or hundreds of millions of dollars comes your way to South Carolina."
A state lawmaker investigating the commercial flights has said the governor broke the law when he charged taxpayers for the pricier flights. Sen. David Thomas, who has announced his candidacy for Congress, said the budget subcommittee he chairs also will investigate Sanford's use of state planes and report those findings later to lawmakers. Thomas, a Republican, has said legislators can consider sanctions against Sanford ranging from doing nothing to demanding reimbursement to impeachment.
Sanford's office has said the governor did not break the law.
"I'm here, certainly have been humbled in the process, as you cannot imagine," Sanford said. "I'm going to be busy being governor until I'm told otherwise."