Politics & Government

How Mark Sanford's Argentine affair ended a GOP star's rise

Governor Sanford of South Carolina admitted he had an affair.
Governor Sanford of South Carolina admitted he had an affair. Erik Campos/The State/MCT

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Five things brought down South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

The first was Sanford himself.

Long a loner, Sanford refuses to issue a public schedule, for example, and then vanishes. He also disdains and evades his security detail. Thus, he thought he could vanish again to Argentina to see his mistress.

Then there was Jake’s revenge.

Last year, Sanford and his wife, Jenny, tried to defeat Lexington state Sen. Jake Knotts — an ally of Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer — and failed. Knotts, who settles old scores, made Sanford’s most recent vanishing act public.

When that happened, Jenny Sanford launched her revenge. Long her husband’s best political strategist, Jenny Sanford could have tamped down the “Where is Mark?” questions.

Instead, she said she didn’t know where her husband was and wasn’t worried about it. She said she was busy: Raising their sons.

The second-term, lame-duck blues also took their toll on Sanford.

After 6½ years in office, Sanford has lost key advisers — including Jenny Sanford and former chief of staff Tom Davis — to other causes. Jenny Sanford largely stepped away from politics, letting her husband hire a political consultant for his second gubernatorial campaign. Davis was elected to the state Senate.

The Sanford staffers who remained or had been elevated weren’t up to the task of either controlling Sanford or covering for him. It’s a typical second-term problem. But staffers’ explanation that Sanford had disappeared to hike the Appalachian Trail was quickly disproved.

Finally, there were the anonymous revenges.

A Dec. 30 e-mail planted the seeds of believability for a Tuesday-night phone caller who said Sanford had flown to Argentina.

Those anonymous tips led The State to have a reporter at the Atlanta airport to interview Sanford. Then, in rapid succession, the paper told Sanford’s aides and a key ally, Davis, that it had e-mails describing an affair between Sanford and a woman in Argentina, and a free-lance journalist knocked on a door in Buenos Aires. A woman at that address initially answered to the name on the e-mails, Maria, then said Maria wasn’t at home.

But the damage was done.

In eight short hours, the combination of the two anonymous tipsters and three actions — Sanford’s arrival at the Atlanta airport, unveiling the e-mails and finding Maria — took Sanford from would-be president to disgraced adulterer.


Sanford has run away from his security detail since the moment he was elected governor in November 2002.

“Look, I’m going to drive my car,” Sanford told SLED agents who waited to drive him to his Sullivan’s Island home as the governor-elect emerged from his 2002 election-night victory celebration in Charleston. “You guys can follow if you want.”

From that moment, security staffers have been chasing behind a maverick chief executive who resists protection.

During his two terms, Sanford, a physical-fitness buff, has jogged alone at night in the neighborhood surrounding the Governor’s Mansion, leaving agents unaware or to follow him in a car, officials familiar with gubernatorial security say.

Sanford also hops into a SLED vehicle to run errands or to drive alone to his State House office, said the sources, who insisted on anonymity.

Sanford’s aversion to security and success in evading it is important because it explains, in part, his ability to disappear and fly to Argentina to see his mistress.

Compared with his predecessors, Sanford’s security detail has about half as many officers.

Sanford’s testy relationship with security officers makes it difficult for police and others to stay in touch as events may require and exposes the governor to dangers, critics said.

Security for S.C. governors has been an informal arrangement for decades.

Nothing in the law required protection for either the governor or lieutenant governor until mid-2007.

That’s when legislative leaders — frustrated by Lt. Gov. Bauer’s two run-ins with traffic police — passed a budget proviso requiring a security detail for Bauer, who is second in the state’s line of chief-executive succession.

During the 2008 legislative session, a proviso was enacted for the governor. But it requires the chief executive to agree to the degree of security.

“Any governor can stand down his protection,” said SLED director Reggie Lloyd, who reports to Sanford. “He can walk away from it. There is no requirement he has to accept it at any given time.”

Neither SLED’s Lloyd, Public Safety director Mark Keel nor the Natural Resources agency —the three agencies that provide officers for Sanford’s security detail — would discuss specifics about security measures.

But Sanford and Bauer have entirely differing views of security.

Bauer pressed for a security detail from the moment he was elected, officials said. Sanford is blunt about his disdain for security officers, they say.

On June 18, Sanford ditched his security detail and drove his state-owned car to Columbia’s airport, where security cameras recorded him walking to a plane.


If it weren’t for Sen. Knotts, R-Lexington, Sanford might have gotten away with his secret Argentine trip, at least for a while longer.

After he learned the governor had driven away in a state vehicle without his security detail, Knotts alerted the media Monday to the missing governor.

Knotts said he was concerned about the governor’s safety.

But some say the senator and ally of gubernatorial hopeful Bauer, also a Republican, had a political motivation as well.

Last year, Sanford endorsed Republican candidate Katrina Shealy in the GOP primary race for the Senate seat that Knotts has held since 2002. Sanford also appeared in commercials, endorsing Shealy.

“I’m supporting Katrina in this race quite simply because I believe she’s committed to the conservative ideals of lower taxes and limited government that people I talk to in Lexington County believe in very strongly,” Sanford said in his April 2008 endorsement.

“I believe Katrina will be a real leader in terms of working to make South Carolina a better place to do business, work and raise a family, and to that end I’m pleased to endorse her.”

Knotts was upset with the governor’s involvement. He gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor shortly after his victory over Shealy, criticizing Sanford for actively campaigning against him.

Friday, Knotts held a press conference, calling for Sanford to resign.

Knotts said that call was not based on a personal or political vendetta. Instead, it’s about restoring credibility to the highest office in the state, Knotts said.

“(South Carolina) needs to move on,” Knotts said. “We need to get this behind us.”


After Knotts went public with Sanford’s disappearance, the one person who could have politically saved the wandering governor was his wife.

She didn’t try.

For seven days, South Carolinians didn’t know the whereabouts of Gov. Sanford. But they knew where first lady Jenny Sanford stood, without a doubt.

With her husband missing for four days, Jenny Sanford sent a message through her first public comments, just as Sanford’s whereabouts became a national mystery that led to the uncovering of her husband’s adulterous affair.

“He was writing something and wanted some space to get away from the kids,” the first lady told a reporter Monday at the couple’s Sullivan’s Island beach home, where she was staying with their four sons.

Father’s Day weekend had just come and gone, and Jenny Sanford said the family had not heard from her husband. She went on to tell the reporter she didn’t know where Sanford was and was not concerned.

All across the state, when residents read that remark, their reaction was much the same. If your husband or wife is missing for four days, and you don’t know where they are, but you’re not concerned, it’s probably painful.

By the following day, officials across the state and, increasingly, around the nation were paying attention to Sanford’s absence.

Monday night, the governor’s office said it finally had heard from the missing Sanford. He would return to work Wednesday, his office said.

Jenny Sanford, who has been married to Sanford for 20 years, still hadn’t heard from Sanford, however.

It was revealed later Jenny Sanford had known for five months that her husband was having an affair with a woman in Argentina. She also had asked Sanford for an informal separation — to maintain her dignity, she said — though she said it wasn’t her place to disclose that fact out of respect for Sanford’s public position.

When Sanford had said he might go away over the Father’s Day weekend, Jenny Sanford said, she said that was fine: Just don’t go to Argentina. But the public did not yet know that.

Approached by the media once Sanford’s office said it had heard from the governor, Jenny Sanford again made her position clear.

“I am being a mom today,” the first lady told a CNN reporter. “I have not heard from my husband. I am taking care of my children.”

Chatter within the blogosphere and on the street again interpreted Jenny Sanford’s remarks in a similar fashion: The first lady was being a mom; Sanford was not being a father.

Sanford returned to South Carolina from Argentina six days after he left, confessing to being unfaithful to his wife.

Jenny Sanford, described by many as the governor’s best political adviser, was not with him. Instead, she issued a statement.

“I believe wholeheartedly in the sanctity, dignity and importance of the institution of marriage,” one sentence read. She said her husband had earned the chance for a reconciliation.

The day after Sanford’s confession, Jenny Sanford told CNN she would be fine — with or without Sanford.

“I have great faith and great friends and great family,” she said. “We have a good Lord in this world, and I know that I’m going to be fine and not only will I survive, I’ll thrive.”

A day later, Jenny Sanford said she had been hoping that her husband indeed had been hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

That he had dared to go to Argentina to see the other woman left her stunned.

“He was told in no uncertain terms not to see her,” she told the Associated Press in a strong, steady voice. “I was hoping he was on the Appalachian Trail. But I was not worried about his safety. I was hoping he was doing some real soul-searching somewhere and devastated to find out it was Argentina.

“It's tragic.”


Among the many betrayals committed by Gov. Sanford this week, his deception of his staff raised warning flags among reporters that this was no typical post-session wind-down by the governor.

At first, Sanford staffers had no answer as to where the governor was despite a cell-phone tower providing his last-known location as being near Atlanta. Then — nine hours later, late Monday — in an effort to squelch speculation, staffers said Sanford was hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Sanford’s taste for adventure and need for solitude initially made a hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail seem plausible.

But in explaining his absence, two critical questions were left unanswered: Why would Sanford have been near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Thursday, as his cell phone had indicated? It is 80 miles from the Appalachian Trail.

And if he were really hiking as his staff said about 10 p.m. Monday, then why would he not be back in the office until Wednesday, 1½ days later? His absence had caused a public stir only he could calm.

The next day, staff and Sanford allies said the governor’s still-mysterious trip was a harmless excursion. Then, late Tuesday night, Sanford’s SUV was discovered at Columbia’s airport, completely unraveling the story.

By Wednesday morning, when The State met Sanford’s Delta flight returning from Argentina, it was clear Sanford’s staff had provided few, if any, facts all week.

Sanford admitted he had not told his staff the truth about his trip.

“The first key moment was the inability of staff to know ... where he was,” said Gary Karr, whose former boss, former Gov. David Beasley, once called a press conference to debunk a rumored affair. “If you don’t know, you just can’t say you know.”

Former Sanford spokesman Will Folks said false statements by staff turned the disappearance into a story.

“I don’t think any of this would have ever blown up” had there not been false statements made, Folks said. But, he added, “You can’t blame people on the staff for being misled.”

Sanford, the loner, always has had trouble trusting friends and colleagues, Folks said, and no one knew enough to grab the governor by the shoulder and ask him to think twice.

Or was strong enough to stand up and do so.

In part that’s because older, more seasoned aides — Jenny Sanford and Davis — have gone on to other things, as is typical in the waning years of a governor’s second term.

Wednesday morning, for instance, Sanford’s fellow Furman University grad Davis — a relative graybeard when it comes to the governor’s youngish staff — raced to Columbia from Beaufort to speak to Sanford before his press conference.

Sanford’s current spokesman, Joel Sawyer, defends the governor’s current staff.

“Every bit of information” issued by the governor’s office during the debacle was “believed to be true at the time,” he said.

“There’s obviously a lot of disappointment on the staff’s part,” Sawyer said Friday. “We believe in the larger ideas of what he’s trying to accomplish, as we always have.”


Sanford’s long, strange absence — and Jenny Sanford’s chilly public statements about the governor’s whereabouts — had suddenly cast in new light copies of five e-mails purportedly between Sanford and a woman in Argentina.

The e-mail exchanges, pasted into a single e-mail, had arrived Dec. 30 at The State in an account for letters to the editor. The subject field read, “This is your governor.”

The e-mails were from the personal e-mail address of Gov. Sanford to a woman in Argentina named Maria. Those e-mails outlined a sexual affair.

The editorial page editor who retrieved the e-mail replied to it, asking who the e-mailer was.

There was no response.

When the e-mails were sent to the newsroom, a reporter and editor there both e-mailed the AOL account in the United Kingdom, asking questions. There was no response.

Then, the reporter e-mailed Maria. Again, there was no response.

Attempts to electronically divine whether the e-mails were genuine also failed to produce results.

With the S.C. Legislature in session and a battle over federal stimulus money escalating, the e-mails went in a drawer.

Then, Knotts announced Sanford was missing.

Staffers initially said Sanford was doing previously postponed work. His wife said he was writing something. Then staffers said Sanford was on the Appalachian Trail, but they did not know where. They added he would be back to work Wednesday.

Inside the newsroom, the trail story was questioned.

Why? In part, the e-mails.

Operating on the chance Sanford was in Argentina, reporters began looking at flight schedules Tuesday. There had been a flight out of Atlanta on June 18, the last day Sanford’s cell phone was tracked. The soonest flight from Argentina would be arriving in Atlanta at 6 a.m. Wednesday.

The question was whether to go to the Atlanta airport? It was answered quickly by an anonymous call to reporter John O’Connor.

The caller put Sanford on an airplane Thursday, June 18. The destination? Argentina.

Reporter Gina Smith grabbed her digital audio recorder and digital camera and headed to Atlanta. If the governor hadn’t already returned from Argentina, he could be arriving back in the United States on Wednesday.

Shortly after 5 a.m. Wednesday, Smith went to the airport. Shortly after 6 a.m., she met a surprised Sanford. Smith was the only media member there.

Sanford said he had just arrived from Argentina. He also said he had not been on the Appalachian Trail.

When asked who he had been with in Argentina, the governor cut off the interview.

By 7:30 a.m., thestate.com had broken the news that Sanford had not been on the Appalachian Trail, but in Argentina.

In their morning meeting, State editors decided to immediately inform the governor and his inner circle about the e-mails. .

A reporter called a Sanford staffer, saying the paper had e-mails that outlined an affair between the governor and Maria. Unless Sanford would address the issue privately, The State would have no choice but to ask him — with TV crews filming — if he knew Maria at his press conference that afternoon.

The names of two other women tumbled into the newsroom.

Fearful Sanford’s staffers did not get it — that the paper would ask publicly what Sanford’s relationship was with Maria — a State editor called Davis, Sanford’s former chief of staff.

Davis, a Beaufort lawyer, recently had been elected to the state Senate. When called, he quickly said he no longer worked for Sanford.

The editor said he knew that but wanted to talk with Davis. Sanford had landed from Argentina, and the paper had e-mails about an affair with a woman in Argentina.

The editor told Davis why he thought the e-mails were genuine. They mentioned Coosaw, the Sanford plantation, and Sanford’s love of digging holes; they quoted Bible verses and contained details about Sanford’s known schedule.

And more names of women were coming in over the transom. The total was at three and counting.

“Women?!” Davis responded, sounding incredulous. “Women?!”

The editor repeated that the paper would ask Sanford publicly about Maria with TV cameras running. Jenny Sanford and the couple’s four sons should be spared that image, and it was up to Davis to ensure Sanford’s staffers “got it.”

Davis, who said he was in Beaufort, promised to call Sanford’s staff and call back.

When he called back, Davis said he was driving to Columbia.

Within minutes, a Columbia Web site operated by former Sanford staffer Folks, which regularly promotes Sanford’s agenda and Davis’ political prospects, was reporting The State had e-mails about a Sanford affair.

Meanwhile, an editor in the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers, which owns The State, volunteered to arrange for a freelance journalist in Argentina to go to Maria’s Buenos Aires address, contained in the e-mails.

A woman there initially said she was Maria, but then said Maria was not there when the freelancer said she was a reporter.

Sanford’s press conference was scheduled to start at 2 p.m. It was delayed until 2:30.

Sanford opened the press conference by asking where was The State reporter who had met him at the Atlanta airport. Then, over the next 18 minutes he thought out loud, eventually saying he had been unfaithful to his wife. He apologized to his mistress and, later, his wife.

Subsequently asked to authenticate the e-mails between Sanford’s personal e-mail address and Maria, Sanford’s press spokesman declined. But Sanford would not dispute their authenticity, he said.

Later, Sanford said he had been unfaithful to his wife only once, with his lover in Argentina.


Some questions remain unanswered.

The State’s staffers suspected Maria or a friend of hers.

Friday night, The New York Times reported that, according to an Argentine source, the e-mails had been sent by a jilted boyfriend of Maria’s.

Her e-mails refer to another boyfriend. But, Maria wrote, she did not love him, only Sanford.

That unnamed boyfriend discovered the Sanford-Maria e-mails and decided to lash out at “your governor,” the Times reported.

When Maria found out her e-mails had been sent to The State, she ended the relationship with the unnamed boyfriend, the Times said.

By The State e-mailing her, as it tried to authenticate the e-mails?

That’s a possibility.

If so, his trip last week to Argentina was even more reckless.

The most important question may be this: Would Sanford have confessed to the affair Wednesday if a State reporter had not met him when his Argentine flight landed, if the paper had not said it would publicly discuss the e-mails and if a freelancer had not been able to find Maria at the address in her e-mails?


Friday night, Sanford called Smith, The State reporter who had met him at the Atlanta airport.

Earlier Friday, some legislators and GOP powers called on Sanford to resign. He says he won’t. Others want an investigation of his activities and use of state money. Sanford has said he will pay back a portion of the $8,000 in public money spent for his trip to South America last year, which included a two-day visit to Argentina. His wife remains on Sullivan’s Island.

Sanford thanked Smith for being professional.

Then, he said he was going biking at Fort Jackson. He liked to exercise, he said.

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