There was a time not too long ago when Gov. Mark Sanford was conflicted about taking a trip to Argentina.
Then a first-term congressman who ran on frugality, Sanford told The Post and Courier in 1995 that he “agonized” about it, but as a member of the House International Relations Committee, he felt compelled to travel to the South American country as a committee member.
It was one of three foreign trips covered by the paper during Sanford’s six years in Congress that show the then-U.S. Rep’s frustration with Washington principles, as well as his evolving position regarding trips on the taxpayer dime.
Sanford’s travel as governor has been under intense scrutiny in the past few months after he abandoned the state for nearly a week in June. Most people had no idea where he was, and the few who thought he was hiking the Appalachian Trail soon found out with the rest of us that he secretly had been in Argentina with his lover of a year.
To eliminate suspicion about the use of public funds, Sanford released pages and pages of travel documents to prove he hadn’t spent state dollars to see Maria Belen Chapur. But the fresh transparency came with a price — as the Associated Press and other news agencies continue to unravel opulent trips and other abuses.
The media reports have led to a State Ethics Commission investigation, but the most damning trip is one Sanford tried to resolve soon after he admitted the affair. During his high-profile press conference, Sanford told the world the relationship with Chapur “sparked” on a trip last June. The next day, it was revealed that the 2008 trip Sanford was referring to was a taxpayer-funded economic development mission to Brazil. At the urging of the governor’s office, the state Commerce Department orchestrated a special side trip for Sanford to speak with Argentinian officials. Questions this summer about that trip led Sanford to reimburse the state more than $3,000.
But it was evident that Sanford, who was concerned in 1995 about taxpayer perceptions of international travel, had used an official trade mission more than a decade later to cheat on his wife.
Somewhere Other Than Here
In his conversation about the South American trip 14 years ago, Sanford seemed to feel burdened with his committee assignment. He ran on reforming tax policy in Washington, and that wouldn’t happen shaking hands at embassy dinners.
“I didn’t want to be on international relations, but I don’t want to do my job poorly,” he said, before offering an almost ironic premonition. “I know politically it’s not the right thing ever to go on any trip.”
Travel to Russia in 1998 prompted another story about Sanford’s anxiety over Congressional jaunts. Soon after winning a third and final House election (Sanford term-limited himself back in 1994), the congressman said he was taking the trip because he was “tired of not having firsthand experience” during committee debates.
“The issue in D.C. is always credibility,” he told The Post and Courier.
But Sanford restated his issues with congressional travel, saying other committee members went abroad far too often.
“As long as I can defend it at a town hall meeting at home, I don’t have a problem,” he said of his own trip.
A year later, Sanford was boarding a plane for a nine-day journey to Japan, Australia, and New Zealand — weeks prior to his last year in office.
Sanford justified the trip as his last ditch effort to squeeze in Social Security reform before he walked away from Congress in 2000. Sanford appeared desperate to sway House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and saw the trip as the perfect buddy-comedy bonding experience.
“I don’t know how to say this without sounding crass,” he told The P&C. “It’s face time … I’m going to be in the plane with him for nine days.”
Considering Sanford’s hemming and hawing about getting on a plane, it’s somewhat surprising that Democrats attempted to use his congressional travel against him when he ran for governor in 2002. The campaign for Gov. Jim Hodges tried to paint Sanford as aloof in a TV ad. But the ad erroneously stated that Sanford had traveled to Belgium when it was actually Holland, and the mistake overshadowed the substance.
That wasn’t the first time that travel came up in the campaign. Soon after the primaries, Sanford attacked Hodges for a Commerce Department audit that found wasteful spending, particularly on big-ticket foreign trips.
Then a candidate, Sanford’s blunt statements could seemingly come from any of the 2010 gubernatorial candidates looking to distance themselves from a fresh batch of travel trouble.
“If we want to move forward as a state, we’ve got to get past this default setting of wasteful spending and zero accountability,” Sanford said at the time. “Quite frankly, that starts with the governor … Leadership starts with the example you set.”