Sanford’s affair, ‘You lie!’ and Phelps’ bong photo: 2009 is Year of the Bad Decision in SC

By Jeffrey Collins, AP
Thursday, December 24, 2009

Call 2009 the Year of the Bad Decision in SC

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Marc Torchi burned some yard debris and thought firefighters put it out. Four days later, the most costly wildfire in South Carolina history swept toward Myrtle Beach.

Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps came to Columbia for some fun. He left behind a police investigation into a marijuana pipe.

Congressman Joe Wilson got upset, and his shout at the president reverberated for weeks.

And then there was Mark Sanford and his “soul mate.”

The theme of the top news stories of 2009 in South Carolina? Call it the Year of the Bad Decision.

It seemed that with every click on a news Web site in 2009, someone in South Carolina was making a choice that left the rest of the nation shaking its collective head.

By August, the parody news program The Daily Show aired an off-color segment titled “Thank you, South Carolina!” to give the state props for helping keep the rest of the country agog. “South Carolina has stepped up its game,” declared host Jon Stewart.

A month later, Wilson launched himself onto the national stage with a two-word shout that seemed to galvanize opponents of President Barack Obama as much as it repulsed his fans. The South Carolina congressman’s “You lie!” managed to overshadow Obama’s major health care speech to Congress.

The Republican told the White House he was sorry for the outburst, but then refused to apologize again on the House floor. Members voted mostly along party lines to admonish him. Wilson and a challenger for his Columbia-based seat have since used the incident to raise campaign money.

“I will not be muzzled,” Wilson said on a video posted on his Web site.

Others were more contrite about their missteps. A photo of 14-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps surfaced in February, showing him inhaling from a pipe commonly used to smoke marijuana at a 2008 party with University of South Carolina students. Phelps said he used “bad judgment,” but never said what was in the bong.

The Richland County sheriff raised eyebrows by issuing search warrants and raiding two homes where people who partied with Phelps were staying. In the end, no charges were filed against the athlete.

In what turned out to be a good decision for South Carolina, lawmakers in October used a massive incentive package to help land an assembly plant for the Boeing 787 in North Charleston. Thousands of jobs are planned and the decision fostered unanimity among officials who usually spend a lot of time disagreeing. The decision also means Washington state will not get the plant.

But a cascade of poor decisions certainly led to South Carolina’s worst disaster of 2009. Authorities say an April wildfire that threatened Myrtle Beach started in Conway after firefighters failed to extinguish a debris fire.

State forestry officials said it smoldered undetected, bursting into flame days later.

The wildfire was the most damaging in South Carolina history, sending people fleeing from homes, burning 31 square miles and causing $25 million in damages. One bit of good news: Nobody was seriously injured.

Other bad decisions caused irreparable harm.

Career criminal Patrick Burris, paroled in April after serving eight years in a North Carolina prison, shot five people to death over six summer days around Gaffney. Authorities say they may never know why Burris started killing. He was slain by police investigating a burglary complaint at a home in Gastonia, N.C.

Gov. Mark Sanford’s penultimate year in office was marked first by his highly publicized battle against the federal stimulus program. For five months, Sanford refused to accept $700 million set aside for the state. The governor’s political star rose as he insisted that the package would devalue the dollar and increase debt.

Critics said he was grandstanding for a presidential run in 2012 and putting esoteric principles ahead of real needs. Stimulus proponents said thousands of teachers and other public workers could lose their jobs without the money, a devastating blow in a state that hovered in the nation’s top five for unemployment rates through the year.

The South Carolina Supreme Court ordered Sanford to take the money in June.

Soon after that, he went to Argentina to see his mistress.

Sanford — who had voted to impeach President Bill Clinton and called Clinton’s sexual escapades “reprehensible” — said his relationship with the woman became physical in 2008, when the governor went to Buenos Aires for an economic development trip.

In 2009, things started to unravel. First lady Jenny Sanford found a love letter the governor wrote to his mistress and demanded the relationship end. But Sanford decided to fly to Argentina while leading his staff to believe he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

The missing governor returned for a tearful news conference and admitted being unfaithful to his wife. Days later, he laid out the details of his affair and lingering feelings for his “soul mate,” identified as Maria Belen Chapur, in hours of interviews with The Associated Press.

By the time the year ended, it appeared the governor had dodged an impeachment push. He still faces a formal rebuke from lawmakers and potential fines from a state ethics investigation into his travel and campaign finances. He also couldn’t head off what appears to be the end of his marriage.

Jenny Sanford filed for divorce in December, a day after her husband spoke with reporters yet again about some of the events of the year.

“I failed,” the governor said, “at a rather epic level.”

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