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Senate probe: SC gov broke law on state travel

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BRETT J. BLACKLEDGE | August 10, 2009 07:14 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford broke state law when he charged taxpayers for more expensive business and first-class flights, according to the chairman of the legislative committee investigating Sanford's international travel.

State Sen. David Thomas, whose budget committee investigated Sanford's flights following reports last month by The Associated Press, sent evidence to Senate leaders Monday arguing the Republican governor violated state laws requiring the cheapest travel possible.

Thomas said Sanford's more expensive flights on two state Commerce Department trips cost taxpayers $13,700 more than the economy class flights available.

Legislators can consider sanctions against Sanford ranging from demanding reimbursement to impeachment, said Thomas, R-Fountain Inn.

"It could be perceived, if it's significant enough and a case can be made of it, to constitute a case for possible impeachment," Thomas said Monday.

Sanford spokesman Benjamin Fox said Thomas' conclusions that the governor broke the law "blatantly overreach and accordingly are, in our view, not correct."

"Before making his claims, it would have seemed fair for Senator Thomas to actually approach our office, as well as the Department of Commerce, to discuss his evidence and his interpretation of state laws and regulations," Fox said in a statement.

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 official residence to live at the family's beach house with their sons.

Thomas, who has announced his candidacy for Congress, said the budget subcommittee that he chairs also will investigate Sanford's use of state planes and report those findings later to lawmakers. The AP reported this week that Sanford used state aircraft for personal and political trips, a practice that is contrary to state law.

Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden and Democratic Rep. Boyd Brown of Winnsboro called for an investigation Monday.

Sanford's staff has defended his use of the planes, saying he always traveled on state business and used the planes less frequently than his predecessors.

Thomas said he didn't believe a single issue, including violating state law to travel business and first class, would trigger an impeachment process. Legislators likely would consider a combination of concerns, including Sanford's business and first-class travel at state expense, use of state planes for personal and political trips and his mysterious disappearance earlier this year to visit his mistress in Argentina.

"It's the whole array of all the things that we've seen over the past month," said Thomas, who said he wasn't advocating impeachment or other sanctions. Thomas said he will not make any recommendation when submitting his findings to the Legislature, but only will present evidence to lawmakers for review.

"They could do nothing," he said.

Last month the AP reported that 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 despite a state law requiring lowest-cost travel.

Thomas, chairman of the Constitutional and Administrative Subcommittee of Senate Finance, conducted his own investigation of the AP's findings, focusing on state trips Sanford took to China in 2007 and London in 2006.

Sanford's $12,172 charge for travel to China included business-class accommodations on United Airlines. The governor also flew in first class on a U.S. Airways flight to London in 2006 at a cost of $7,065, state records show.

Thomas said there is no documentation showing that the governor or anyone else reimbursed the state for the more expensive flights. Other state employees traveled in the less expensive economy class on those flights, he said.

The AP reported on two other flights Sanford took to Munich and Poland, charging the state nearly $10,000 for business class seats on those trips. Thomas said he has not received information from the state on those flights, so they are not included in his report.

Sanford charged the state $8,687 for a Delta Air Lines trip to Brazil last year that included a leg in the more expensive business class, state expense records show. He has since acknowledged visiting his mistress in Argentina during that trip, a trade mission planned by the state's Commerce Department. After the publicity in June, Sanford reimbursed the state $3,300 for part of the trip.

Other state employees spent less than $2,000 each on economy seats for the Brazil flight, according to state records.

Thomas said that trip is not included in his findings because Sanford reimbursed the state, although he may later refer it to Senate leaders as a separate violation.