Politics & Government

How Sanford spent state money on last year's Argentina trip

Gov. Mark Sanford heavily mixed business and pleasure during a three-day trip in 2008 to Argentina to visit his lover, records released by the South Carolina Department of Commerce show.

Sanford has reimbursed taxpayers about $3,300 for the trip — one of seven times he said he rendezvoused with Maria Belen Chapur. Sanford has said it is the only time he has met her while on state-funded business.

The records show that on June 25, 2008, Sanford left the rest of the South Carolina delegation who had taken part in a Brazilian trade mission and a private dove hunt in Cordoba, Argentina, to go to Buenos Aires, accompanied by just a state Commerce Department staffer.

It was an unusual place to talk trade.

Argentina defaulted on its foreign debts in 2002 and tilted politically left. The U.S. Department of Commerce had not conducted a trade mission in the country between 2002 and 2008. And South Carolina was the first state delegation to visit Argentina since 2005.

Commerce Department spokeswoman Kara Borie said the department set up the Argentine meetings at the governor’s request. Sanford was going to be in Argentina anyway, so why not lay the groundwork for some possible trade breakthrough?

Sanford did not steer the trip toward Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, Borie said. That Sanford’s secret lover was there, she said, was a coincidence.

The governor briefly had joined some delegation members for a dove-hunting trip in Cordoba, Argentina, but cut the hunt short to conduct trade meetings in the capital

While the governor had legitimate meetings with Argentine officials, according to his itinerary, he also admitted meeting Chapur in the evenings the first two days and most of the third day.

Sanford would not comment on the trip for this story.

In a written statement, Joel Sawyer, the governor’s spokesman, said: “In this case, since the governor was already going to be in Argentina for the bird hunt, Commerce was asked to add trade-related meetings in Argentina to the agenda as well.”

The state Commerce Department staffer who accompanied Sanford to Buenos Aires, W. Ford Graham, an attorney and specialist in global business development with a masters degree from the University of South Carolina, flew in a day before Sanford to lay the groundwork for the Buenos Aires trip.

Graham, 32, told McClatchy's The State newspaper that he never saw the governor with Chapur, but that he was not with Sanford in the evenings or during his free time.

"(I) never met her and was not aware of her existence prior to last Wednesday,” Graham said.

The governor stayed at the Hilton Hotel Buenos Aires in the Puerto Madero district, an old port area known for its swank night life, tony shops and world-class restaurants.

Sanford spent and the state paid about $1,100 for two rooms — one room each for Sanford and Graham for two nights.

Included in Sanford’s Buenos Aires Hilton bill was a mini-bar tab of about $40 and $200 in fees for a 6½-hour late departure fee because his return flight to the United States did not leave until 8:30 p.m.

By his own admission, Sanford spent evenings with Chapur after meetings with Argentine politicians and business leaders on June 25 and June 26, 2008.

Sanford’s official meetings were held in nice surroundings.

For example, the governor dined with officials from the American Chamber of Commerce at Cabanas Las Lilas, one of the nicest and most traditional steakhouses in Buenos Aires, the capital of the country that considers itself the home to the best grass-fed beef on the planet.

He also was flown by helicopter to La Plata to meet with Buenos Aires Province Gov. Daniel Scioli. That flight was paid for by the Argentine government.

During his time in Buenos Aires, Sanford had an interpreter and driver selected by the U.S. Embassy and paid for by South Carolina. The interpreter was paid $100; the driver about $170, records show.

The interpreter, Ines Perrone, told McClatchy by telephone that there was no sign of Chapur during Sanford’s official events and that Sanford came across as a serious but warm visitor.

“With me, he was always very correct,” said Perrone, who earned a doctorate in economics from Eastern Michigan University in 2004. “I can’t say anything bad about him. He was a very correct person. He was a curious person, friendly.”

Perrone said that Sanford was always accompanied by an aide, presumably Graham, and that his meetings were formal business events. She said she was surprised to hear the news of Sanford’s fling in Argentina, adding that she saw no evidence it was happening.

“I was never alone with him,” Perrone said.

Perrone thought it was curious Sanford traveled without bodyguards given his status as a governor.

Emilio Scagelj, who drove the governor around Buenos Aires during the visit, said he was surprised to see Sanford’s photos on the pages of Argentine newspapers.

Reached by McClatchy by telephone in Buenos Aires, Scagelj said he doesn’t speak enough English to know what the delegation was talking about. He did not see Chapur at any events and did not drop off the governor at her apartment building.

“I never saw him with anyone else than who was with him (at meetings),” said Scagelj, adding that he left Sanford at the Hilton after meetings.

Sanford had scheduled a free day on his final day in Buenos Aires — with only a visit to a local newspaper and a self-guided tour of the city on his preliminary itinerary provided by the state Commerce Department.

However, those two items were missing from a U.S. Embassy hour-by-hour itinerary obtained by McClatchy.

Graham said he took the self-guided tour, but Sanford did not show up. Graham also said he did not think the governor visited the newspaper.

Sanford’s one-way air fare home was $4,000 for a business-class seat, records show. Graham’s air fare was $870 for coach.

Sanford did not reimburse any money for that flight. Sawyer said it would be too difficult to prorate the amount because he would have had to return from Brazil and the dove hunt anyway.

Kevin G. Hall of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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