Two things have seemed clear to me for some time about Gov. Mark Sanford's use of state planes and campaign funds: His actions don't meet what I consider a very high bar needed to justify impeachment, and some of them do merit civil penalties from the State Ethics Commission.
The Legislature seems well on its way to agreeing on the former, for which we all should be grateful, as that will make it at least theoretically possible for lawmakers to turn their attention to the deep and lingering problems that plague our state. And it seems hard to imagine that the Ethics Commission wouldn't follow through on the latter when it takes up 37 charges against the governor next month.
But there remains a third question for which I have no clear answer: Should the governor be criminally charged for his personal use of state resources?
This is to me the most troubling possibility. An elected official can survive an Ethics Commission rebuke. Impeachment and removal puts an end to the matter once and for all, by getting the problem official out of office.
Criminal prosecution is different. Prosecution - and even the threat of it - would leave our state in an awkward legal and political limbo, perhaps for the remainder of Mr. Sanford's term. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be pursued.
For months, I had dismissed this possibility of prosecution as an absurd fancy of too-excitable critics; even after I got a first look at the ethics charges against Mr. Sanford, I glommed onto the pronouncements of legislative critics, who said they weren't that serious.
Then I started slogging through the 1,359-page Ethics Commission report, and talking to people who think seriously about the principles involved in such matters, as opposed to fixating on the politics and personalities, and trying to figure out just what should to think about all this.
I find analogies helpful in sorting through complex issues, and my first instinct was to compare the charges against the governor to a traffic ticket: If someone in a high-profile position gets stopped for speeding, he needs to be adequately prosecuted, because to do otherwise is to send a message to the public that the law doesn't matter. But that doesn't mean he needs to go to prison, or to be removed from office.
I quickly abandoned that approach, though, because the charges are not the equivalent of traffic tickets. To be sure, they're not Rod Blagojevich-style corruption charges - and likely not corruption at all, at least not if you think of corruption as intentionally trying to profit illegally from office. But they are serious.
As hard as I tried, I couldn't shake the feeling that these charges had changed the political and legal landscape. Dramatically.
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