Oscar Wilde once railed against reporters, saying, “In old days, men had the rack. Now they have the press.”

Gov. Mark Sanford certainly has become familiar with the modern day torture device in the last few weeks since revealing his year-long Argentinian affair after his mysterious five-day disappearance in June. Sanford reimbursed the state for more than $3,000 in travel costs for a 2008 economic development trip to Argentina that appears to have been orchestrated to see his mistress. State elected leaders seemed content to ignore other potential gubernatorial abuses, but the dogged hunt through Sanford’s travel records by resourceful reporters has birthed a fresh call for ethics and legal investigations into the governor’s spending.

Along with the allusions to the rack, Wilde also commented on the role of the press as the fourth estate in government: “At the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by journalism.”

In the weeks after the Sanford scandal broke, legislative leaders from both parties said they wanted to wait out media investigations before launching a legislative inquiry. It’s true that reporters have a professional responsibility to question the governor’s actions, but the legislature has a legal responsibility to keep an eye on Sanford’s spending.

Regardless, the press took up the task, leading to a new State Ethics Commission review of Sanford’s travel records. But some are still calling for legislative action, questioning the ability of a commission overseen by the governor to turn in an objective analysis. Considering the truncated results of the last report by a Sanford appointee, there may be good reason to worry.

SLED Limited Review

When asked in June to review all of Sanford’s travel records, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division decided instead to focus on only five trips that related to Sanford’s affair with Maria Belen Chapur.

Since that time, the Associated Press has cited several abuses of gubernatorial travel perks that suggest Sanford broke the law, including charging taxpayers for the governor’s opulent first-class flights and high-end hotel stays as well as questionable personal use of state airplanes.

On Aug. 13, the City Paper started inquiring about the SLED review. That same day, Attorney General Henry McMaster made a fresh request to the State Ethics Commission to investigate the governor’s full travel records.

McMaster’s first requst followed Sanford’s embarrassingly frank interview in June with the AP, in which the governor admitted to additional rendezvous with his “soul mate” and indiscretions with other women. A candidate to replace Sanford in 2010, McMaster had been resistant to an investigation, but reversed course.

“In light of the governor’s disclosure of additional travel today, I have requested that SLED conduct a preliminary review of all Gov. Sanford’s travel records to determine if any laws have been broken or any state funds misused,” McMaster said in a press release.

Instead of a review of all travel, SLED looked at five specific trips related to the affair, based on financial documents and information provided by the governor. The July 2 report from SLED Chief Reggie Lloyd, a Sanford appointee, proclaimed that the governor had not used public money for those specific trips.

In SLED’s defense, the limited review seemed to have satisfied McMaster. In a written statement to The State newspaper, the attorney general said that he had no reason to doubt SLED’s conclusions.

But the questions linger over why SLED decided to limit its review. SLED spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons says the division was asked to review only those dates in question. But a copy of the request obtained by the City Paper includes no specific limitations, only a general request for a preliminary review of the governor’s travel records.

Timmons later clarified that SLED had focused on those five dates because of the “collective” concern of several public officials regarding specific trips relevant to the affair. She did not know who at SLED made the final decision to refuse McMaster’s request for a full review.

As for whether the AP reports have swayed SLED officials to expand their search, Timmons says, “We didn’t and still don’t at this time have enough probable cause to review or investigate.”

They Asked For It

State Sen. David Thomas, a U.S. congressional candidate who happens to head a Senate Finance subcommittee on gubernatorial spending, was more than ready in June to take up the lingering questions of Sanford’s travels, but he’s received little support from his peers. Sen. John Land, Democratic Party leader in the chamber and a member of the subcommittee, and Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence), called for patience. Both have been frequent critics of the governor, but they each said that they wanted to wait for further media investigations before starting a legislative review.

Thomas’ one-man mission has been commendable, but it’s largely followed behind Associated Press reports. In July, the wire service reported on Sanford’s pricey flights overseas, a contradiction to the governor’s own rules limiting travel spending to the most frugal means possible. As the AP released its second report on the gubernatorial travel log, revealing private plane trips to his son’s ball games and a campaign supporter’s birthday, Thomas reported to Senate leaders that the governor’s trips appear to have violated state law.

Senate leader Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston), responded by calling on Thomas to end his fact-finding mission. In a letter, McConnell said the Senate should stay out of the hunt and leave it to the House (where impeachment proceedings would begin) or the Ethics Commission.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell and other House GOP leaders then pushed all of the responsibility on to the Ethics Commission.

The legislative resistance to get involved makes one wonder if the body is trying to protect itself from reviews similar to those targeting Sanford.

A summer scandal in Britain has revolved around members of Parliament charging home improvements to the taxpayers as business expenses. The scandal was unearthed by the Daily Telegraph after the paper hired private investigators. Since then, British legislators have been hesitant to comment, says College of Charleston political science adjunct professor Jeri Cabot.

“Everybody was afraid to say anything,” she says. “Nobody could take the high ground.”

Harrell called the Ethics Commission an “impartial” body, but Democratic Party Chairwoman Carol Fowler called the newest review by governor appointees “a farce.”

“Having the Ethics Committee handle this matter is essentially the same as having Sanford investigate himself,” Fowler said in a statement.

But Fowler shouldn’t worry just yet — the press is still on the case. Cabot notes that the flight abuses were arguably “low hanging fruit” and could be followed by further review of gubernatorial spending and tax records. The Post and Courier also recently got into a public war of words with SLED over providing detailed budget documents that conveniently coincides with the Sanford investigation.

Wilde may have alluded to the press as the rack, but one of the key purposes of the infamous torture device was to uncover the truth.