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S.C. governor failed to disclose some flights, probe finds

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford
Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford took dozens of undisclosed flights on private planes since taking office in 2003 despite a state law requiring him to report who paid for the travel, an Associated Press investigation has found.

The AP discovered 35 flights Sanford took on private planes that he did not list on state ethics forms or campaign reports. The flights are noted on Sanford's official calendars, obtained by the AP through a Freedom of Information request.

State law requires elected officials to disclose gifts received in a day worth $25 or more and "anything of value" over the course of a year worth at least $200 "if there is reason to believe the donor would not give the thing of value" but for the public official's position.

Sanford, under scrutiny since announcing an affair with an Argentine mistress, didn't report the flights because the trips were paid for by longtime friends or political groups, spokesman Ben Fox said. "That was our standard operating procedure," he said.

However, state ethics officials said Sanford should report all use of private planes, even if friends pick up the tab, just as any other public official is required to do under the law.

Cathy L. Hazelwood, the state Ethics Commission's general counsel, said such flights "need to be disclosed somewhere."

"To the extent friendship is a reason not to report something is fascinating to me," she said. "There is no private Mark Sanford at this point."

Sanford used the private planes, including some owned by supporters, to fly around the state for political functions, to attend sporting events with supporters and, at times, to go on vacation with his family, the calendars show. In one 2005 trip, the family took Sanford supporter J.T. Gandolfo's Cessna to the Bahamas for "personal time" and returned on a King Air whose owner was not identified in the governor's records.

Sanford already is facing scrutiny after the AP reported his use of state aircraft for personal and political trips, and charges to taxpayers for more expensive first-class and business-class flights on state business. Attorney General Henry McMaster and legislators have called on the South Carolina Ethics Commission to investigate the state plane use. And a Republican state senator chairing a budget committee concluded from his own review that Sanford violated state law with the more expensive commercial flights.

Sanford has argued that his critics have misinterpreted state law. He has said he has gone out of his way to save the state money on his travels and to uphold the law.

The governor's use of private planes falls under state ethics laws requiring disclosure. Hazelwood said each of Sanford's trips needs to be looked at with one question in mind. "Are you being asked to attend this function because you're governor? If the answer is yes, there needs to be disclosure there," she said.

Butch Bowers, a Columbia lawyer who advised Sanford during his campaigns, contended if Sanford can show that he believed those trips were provided because of his friendship with the owners of the planes, he didn't have to disclose them. "That's inherently subjective, and that subjectivity is necessarily grounded in the person doing the reporting," Bowers said.

Sanford frequently used Gandolfo's planes, records show. In November 2003, he used the King Air to travel to Clemson and Spartanburg for county political events; in August 2005, he used Gandolfo's Cessna to return from Atlanta after a family vacation, according to Sanford's office calendars.

Sanford considers Gandolfo, a prominent businessman who owns car dealerships in the state, a close friend, and isn't required to report such flights when they involve friends' aircraft, Fox said.

Gandolfo was on vacation Friday and not available for comment, his secretary said.

The governor also used a plane co-owned by Joe Taylor, a friend and supporter who was named head of the state's Commerce Department. In December 2005, Sanford's calendar shows he flew on Taylor's plane to return from a Christmas party.

Fox said it was a gathering of friends, and not necessary to be disclosed.

Sanford also used Taylor's plane to attend an economic development event in May 2007.

Taylor said his relationship with Sanford dates to about the time Sanford took office. He said Sanford did not use his private plane before becoming governor.

Taylor said he considers the governor a friend now and that's why he offered his plane. In July 2006, Sanford and his sons flew on Taylor's plane to watch the space shuttle launch in Florida.

Sanford also used private planes provided by political groups and the Republican Governors' Association, which he headed until he publicly admitted the affair. Fox said those trips did not have to be disclosed because Sanford did not personally benefit from them and the governor assumed the political groups reported them as they are required to do.

"We think the proper route of disclosure for this flights is by those who provided the flights, or who benefited from them," Fox said.

Sanford arranged to meet with his mistress in one of the 2008 RGA trips that he did not disclose. He had been traveling to Ireland for RGA in November, and arranged a meeting with the woman when he returned, according to records he released after the affair became public.

Hazelwood said such trips funded by political groups should be disclosed to the state.

"They don't report it to us to begin with," she said, adding that Sanford's explanation for not reporting the plane use belongs "in the lame pile. He's got a growing list in the lame pile."

Bowers said Sanford, who before the mistress scandal was considered a presidential GOP prospect, can argue that he didn't personally benefit from the political trips, and therefore didn't receive a gift worthy of reporting in his disclosure forms.

The Republican governor admitted in June to a yearlong affair with an Argentine woman, a sexual relationship that began while Sanford was traveling on state business in 2008. Sanford has responded to critics calling for his resignation by insisting that he will complete his final 16 months in office, although he acknowledges his political ambitions are over.

Last month, Jenny Sanford moved out of the governor's official residence in Columbia, taking the couple's four children to the family's home near Charleston for the school year. The governor and his wife have said they are working on their marriage.