Gov. Mark Sanford's response to criticism for directing surplus money from a governors' convention to a political organization reflecting his views could be summed up as: "Gee, I'm sorry I got caught."
A host committee Sanford set up last year for a three-day National Governor's Association conference in Charleston won a $150,000 taxpayer-funded grant and raised $1.2 million to pay for the conference. It is common for host states to end up with a surplus at the end of these events, and it is customary for governors to designate the surplus for a public cause.
For example, when the conference was held in Iowa in 2005, the $178,000 surplus went to the state fair. When the conference met in Seattle in 2004, the surplus went to a library and to help pay for a conference of national lawmakers. When the conference was held in Idaho in 2002, the surplus went to educational grants.
Sanford, however, ordered the $101,524 left over from the conference last year to be transferred to Carolinians for Reform, an organization formed by his friends and donors that pushes his political agenda. Many are the same friends who set up Carolinians for Change, a political action committee created in 2003 to help Sanford's re-election efforts and to challenge lawmakers opposed to his plans.
Sanford at first defended sending the money to the group as a transfer of private capital. The money, however, had been mingled from the start with the $150,000 taxpayer-funded grant, so that explanation clearly didn't wash.
Last week, John Crangle, state director of the watchdog group Common Cause, weighed in, saying, "The whole thing has a bad smell to it." He suggested that state Attorney General Henry McMaster investigate whether this was an appropriate use of public money.
Sanford then attempted to rectify the situation by ordering the surplus returned to the state's general fund. But he offered no apologies.
"It's completely legal, completely. But perception can be reality in politics," Sanford said. "Do I regret that? Sure, because I should have thought more about, 'Wait. This is going to be picked up, and you're going to get beaten over the head with it.'"
We would agree this was a serious error in judgment -- but much worse than just a political miscalculation, as Sanford seems to view it. It was an underhanded attempt to funnel money -- at least some of it public money -- to his political cronies, who then would have used it to undermine lawmakers, including fellow Republicans, who don't see eye to eye with the governor.
If Sanford did not break the letter of the law, he clearly abused the public trust by using the money for his own political agenda. Common Cause is right -- that deal stinks to high heaven.
Shifting public money to an organization with a political agency was bad judgment.
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