By Meg Kinnard Associated Press
COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has closed two chapters of his life, agreeing to pay $74,000 in fines to resolve ethics charges brought against him after last summer’s revelation of an extramarital affair, and receiving word that a judge had formally ended his 20-year marriage to his wife, Jenny.
The term-limited Republican agreed Thursday to pay the fines to resolve dozens of ethics charges, including a taxpayer-funded rendezvous with his Argentine mistress, marking the end to a months-long saga.
Within minutes, the governor’s marriage had been dissolved by a family court judge in Charleston County, 100 miles from the state capital of Columbia.
Scrutiny of Sanford’s travel started over the summer, when the then-married governor vanished for five days after telling some staff he was going hiking on the Appalachian Trail. He was actually in Argentina, and he returned to tearfully confess a yearlong affair with a woman he later told The Associated Press was his soul mate.
The State Ethics Commission brought the 37 civil charges against the Republican last year, after a series of Associated Press investigations questioned his use of state, commercial and private airplanes, bruising his image as a penny-pinching politician who once required staff to use both sides of Post-it notes.
But Sanford, who is term-limited and will leave office in January, still could face criminal charges. Attorney General Henry McMaster, who requested the ethics investigation, has yet to decide the results of that probe mean the governor will also face criminal charges.
McMaster’s office said Thursday their inquiry is ongoing and is unaffected by the Ethics Commission agreement.
Sanford said in a statement he thinks he would have been vindicated if the commission had heard the case, but didn’t want to continue what he called “an endless media circus.”
Sanford was considered a potential 2012 presidential candidate until the bombshells about the affair. After the ensuing AP investigations, the ethics panel charged him with improperly buying first- and business-class airline tickets, violating a state law requiring lowest-cost travel; improperly using state-owned aircraft for travel to political and personal events, including a stop at a discount hair salon; and improperly reimbursing himself with campaign cash.
Among the violations the commission alleged were:
— approving the purchase of four first- and business-class commercial airline tickets for a June 2008 trip during which he met with his mistress in Argentina.
— personal use of state-owned aircraft for trips such as the birthday party of a campaign contributor in Aiken.
— reimbursing himself nearly $3,000 using campaign contributions, including about $900 for expenses to attend a Republican Governors Association meeting in Miami and a hunting trip in Ireland several days later.
Some of the allegations about Sanford’s use of campaign funds first were revealed by The State newspaper in Columbia.
Under the deal, Sanford agrees to compensate the Ethics Commission nearly $36,498 for its investigative costs. He also agrees to pay back:
— $18,000 to the state Departments of Commerce for first- and business-class airfare;
— $7,792 to the Division of Aeronautics and $1,003 for personal use of state-owned aircraft.
In addition, Sanford says he will pay $2,941 to his own campaign account as a reimbursement for personal use of campaign funds.
The governor’s signature on the consent agreement means he does not admit to violating state ethics laws but does not dispute the accusations either.
Lawmakers have said they believed the accusations were not serious enough to warrant impeachment and instead censured him, a reprimand that had no practical effect but was the first of its kind to a sitting South Carolina governor.
Sanford again said he took full responsibility for his affair and personal failings, but said he felt his use of state planes was justified and the Ethics Commission was judging him by a different standard than other governors.
“I think it’s important at this point to distinguish between a personal failure and the use of tax dollars,” he said.
Also Thursday, a judge finalized Sanford’s divorce, granting Jenny Sanford’s request for an accelerated decision based on Mark Sanford’s infidelity. In South Carolina, couples have to be separated for a year to be granted a no-fault divorce.
Jenny Sanford, who recently completed a book tour promoting her memoir about their relationship, filed for divorce in December. During a brief hearing in Charleston last month, she recounted her discovery of a letter that revealed the affair.
“I confronted him shortly thereafter, and he told me he would end it,” she said. “We worked very diligently to put the marriage back together. … Ultimately, we were unsuccessful.”
The governor did not attend that hearing.
In her four-page order, Family Court Judge Jocelyn Cate said the agreement is fair to both Sanfords. She refused to release details of the settlement, saying that would hurt the couple’s four sons, who are living with their mother in a beachfront home in Sullivans Island.
“Plaintiff has carried her burden of proof in convincing the Court of Defendant’s adultery,” Cate wrote in the four-page order filed Thursday afternoon. “Due to the very public nature of Defendant’s actions and his admission of adultery, no further corroboration was necessary.”
Both Sanfords declined Thursday to comment on the divorce.
Jenny Sanford will still host the annual First Lady’s Easter Egg hunt for children next week in Columbia. She told the AP that the position of first lady is voluntary and from time to time in the coming months she will still continue traditions.