He's Your Problem Now
Mark Sanford: Missing in Action
I often get asked when I knew Sanford was having an affair that led him to “hike the Appalachian Trail.” The answer is both unfortunately and fortunately, on June 24, 2009, the day Sanford came back to the United States from Argentina.
In Two Roads Diverged, I wrote about the moment our paths separated in June 2008.
He lived in a separate world, enabled by people who wanted to rise with him, and we only talked when necessary. We both preferred being in the dark about the other as long as it didn’t interfere or make headlines. It’s incredibly dysfunctional in the rearview, but that didn’t matter to either of us at the moment.
In June 2009, Sanford broke his end of the bargain. He’d kept me in the dark, but he went on to make headlines. It took a series of unfortunate events before I realized we were in deep.
The Escape Plan
A lot happened in the twelve months following our fateful conversation in a car. Some of which I knew, some of which I would learn far too late. The economic meltdown in Fall 2008 put a large stimulus bill front and center in Washington. We positioned Sanford as the vocal opposition to the bill nationally, playing to a mixed South Carolina audience. We’d battled the legislature on whether we would even take the stimulus. The battle went all the way to the South Carolina Supreme Court, which handed Sanford a court order to take the stimulus money. We’d won by losing, but the battle had taken a toll.
By the end of the legislative session, I was preparing to resign to carve my political path. I planned to return to Maryland and run for the first congressional district, which had flipped to a Democrat in the 2008 election cycle. Since I was a kid, I had planned to run for that seat if I ever ran for office, and the opportunity was now waiting for me.
Sanford and I were supposed to meet on the morning of Thursday, June 18, 2009. I would be leaving the Governor’s Office by Labor Day weekend to relocate back to Maryland. I thought we needed to make some changes in the administration and would make the moves before my replacement took the job. Our meeting was at 10 am, and by 10:05, he still had not arrived at the office. I checked with the scheduler. She told me he was staying at the Governor’s Mansion and getting ready for a 10-day trip. A trip that wasn’t on his schedule.
“What do you mean he’s taking a trip? Where?”
“You’ll have to talk to Governor Sanford,” she replied. I’d gotten used to the black hole of information. It was a two-way street, but now, talking to him was urgent to me, so I called him.
“I need to talk to you,” I said.
“Mark, we were supposed to meet this morning, and now I find out you’re going to be out of town for ten days. I’m going to come over. We need to meet.”
“We can’t. I’m really jammed up, and I’ve got to be out of here like right now.”
“I don’t care. You can pack or whatever; I just need to talk to you today.”
“Just tell me what it is,” he responded. He was distracted, but I couldn’t have cared less.
“No, we have to do this face to face. I’ll just come over. I’ll drop you off, whatever. This can’t wait until you get back.”
“Scott, it can wait. Look, I’m going to be gone for a few days. If anything comes up, just take care of it.”
Weird for him to say, “That’s the deal. But, if it’s serious, I’ll be able to reach you, right?”
“Yeah. But just take care of things. I gotta go.”
- Click -
I hated that. Sanford’s phone etiquette drove me nuts. He decided when the call was over. Even if you’d hung up on him, he’d call back so he could end the conversation on his terms. I’d tested the system plenty.
Sanford had been working on a book for Simon & Schuster. It would be requisite tome for every aspiring presidential candidate, outlining his battle against Barack Obama and the Stimulus. He routinely did news hits for months, increasing his national profile for the 2012 presidential race. He owed five chapters in a couple of weeks, and he hadn’t finished writing. I assumed he would work on the book at the family farm in Beaufort.
Sanford’s absence from the office had a way of easing the tension of the staff. The 2009 legislative session being a grind, his absence brought welcome relief to all of us. Our Friday was relatively peaceful and productive. It was the last time that would ever happen.
Before we go on, let’s discuss South Carolina’s State Law Enforcement Division (SLED). SLED was created in 1935 to enforce the state’s liquor laws but became the plainclothes investigative unit for any number of major crimes. When Strom Thurmond was governor, SLED also provided South Carolina’s governors’ security.
On the evening of the 2002 election, four SLED agents waited in a parking lot outside our election party in Mt. Pleasant, SC. It was pouring rain, so they stayed in the car. When the Associated Press was ready to call the election, Jack Profitt, a retired SLED agent, came back to lead this group, walked into the restaurant, and handed Sanford a cellphone so then-Governor Hodges could concede the race.
Jack and his team immediately assumed security protocols for the Sanford family, which made Mark and Jenny uncomfortable. The Sanfords lived on Sullivans Island, a quiet barrier island off the coast of Charleston. During the 2002 campaign, the Sanford home served as the original headquarters, and throughout the election, staff slept in the bunk beds on the first floor. The room earned the nickname “Jurassic Park” because the beds all had dinosaur sheets. The doors to the house were unlocked, and we’d come all hours of the day or night.
When the Sanfords got home on election night, an unmarked car parked at the end of the driveway until Sanford went out and told them to go back to the hotel. The next day, he’d tell the Chief of SLED that he wouldn’t need security until he got to Columbia, and they would talk about the size of the detail.
When Sanford was governor, his detail was smaller than his predecessors. He insisted on traveling with just one member of the detail. They were given strict instructions not to “crowd him” at events. People wanted to approach him, and he didn’t want a buffer. I knew there would be other eyes on him besides the one person traveling with him, but I never told him, and he never asked.
From 1957 to 2007, there were only two chiefs of SLED, J.P. Strom and Robert Stewart. When Chief Stewart retired in 2007, he recommended his second in command, Mark Keel, take over, and I supported the recommendation. Sanford’s approach to SLED was the same in other agencies; it needed a fresh set of eyes, so he wanted someone from the outside.
Sanford thought going “outside the agency” would be a chance to bring change to SLED. He, instead, chose former U.S. Attorney Reggie Lloyd to be the first African American to lead the agency. Reggie was an attorney, not a cop. I took the position that you shouldn’t fix what ain’t broke, but he got the last word since Sanford was governor.
Keel would go to the Department of Public Safety in 2008 when our appointed head stepped down over his handling of a racially-charged traffic stop in 2004. That stop brought to light several issues, and Keel did a tremendous job leading DPS through it. In 2011, Nikki Haley appointed Keel to take over as Chief of SLED, where he remains today.
During the 2009 stimulus battle, Lloyd held a press conference supporting the legislature's stimulus funding plan. Not only was it at odds with Sanford’s plan to use the funds for debt relief, but the public statements were a blindside. Sanford stewed over the press conference, yelling at me as a surrogate for Reggie. For my part, I reminded him that he’d insisted on Reggie, which did not help matters. Finally, I offered to broker a meeting between the two of them.
We held the meeting a week later in the Governor’s Office. To my surprise, Sanford brought in both Keel and Corrections Director Jon Ozmint. I wasn’t the designated bad guy for once, but instead, I was trying to control the chaos. The meeting ended poorly, and I had to contain the mess. This episode becomes relevant almost three months later when SLED investigates Sanford’s disappearance.
Now, back to the story.
Godsmack and I Don’t Mean the Band
On Saturday morning, June 20th, I was the keynote speaker for Winning Women, a course designed for women activists with the South Carolina Republican Party. They would convene in Columbia for lectures and a luncheon with South Carolina political gurus. Given all the attention Sanford had received nationally, I was asked to speak on his behalf.
Submitted for your amusement is the title of my talk, “Crisis Management: Not Every Day’s a Good Day.” Here, I should point out that a Godsmack is God delivering a karmic message to you. Perhaps I should have given a speech on a more pleasant topic, like getting out of politics with your reputation intact.
During my talk, my cell phone rang; it was Jack Profitt, the head of the Governor’s security detail. The boss was out of town, so I silenced the phone. He called again. This time, I turned the phone off until I finished the speech. There was a break while lunch was set up, so I stepped out and listened to my voicemails.
Jack had come out of retirement to lead the detail. He was not prone to excitement but kept me posted when things went sideways, as they did from time to time. I would learn that Jack didn’t fully brief me on the situation as warranted.
“Scott, someone called Jakie Knotts and told him that Governor Sanford was speeding in the Suburban, and Senator Knotts called SLED demanding to know what was going on.”
Senator Knotts, or Jakie as he was called, was a South Carolina Senator from Lexington County. In 2008, Sanford had endorsed one of his primary opponents, but Knotts survived the runoff and returned to the Senate emboldened. After Sanford’s press conference, someone confided in me that Knotts had “put a tail on you and Sanford.” I would have no idea if I were being followed or not. I worked notoriously long days at the State House, and the Bureau of Protective Services had made me an unofficial deputy of the overnight shift, so following me would have been a waste of time.
Jack informed me that Sanford drove off by himself in the state-issued Suburban SLED used to transport the Sanford family. I asked Jack if he knew where the Governor was or what he was doing. He didn’t have any answers, but he’d get back to me. It wasn’t unusual for Sanford to go off by himself without his security detail, so I wasn’t concerned. Days later, Jack would come to see me and unburden his soul, but it was too late to help by then.
One Important Detail
I returned to have lunch and spend time with the participants before heading home.
First, I called Sanford and got his voicemail. I left him a message about what was happening told him to slow down, and if he was stopped, he should take a ticket. He needed to call me back. That was the first of many attempts to reach him.
I then called Reggie Lloyd and had to leave a message. I asked him to call me back, but things were probably blown out of proportion.
Then I called Mark Keel, he answered. I told him about the call and said if someone in the Highway Patrol stopped Sanford, they should make sure to give him a ticket. I didn’t want the optics of a speeding governor being treated differently than the average South Carolinian. If that were the only problem that weekend, it would have been a good one.
On Saturday afternoon, Reggie finally called me back. He let me tell him that I believed Sanford had gone down to the family farm to finish his book. I told him I would call him as soon as I spoke to Sanford and joked that Highway Patrol was ready to give him a ticket if they’d caught him speeding.
Reggie did not share one important detail with me. On Friday, SLED had already pinged Sanford’s cell phone and tracked it to the Atlanta area. That detail would have completely changed everything that happened next. Instead, Reggie was just one of several people who would leave important details out for me to discover on my own.
He’s Your Problem Now
Convinced Sanford had holed up at the farm in Beaufort; I spent Father’s Day 2009 with my children. I’d tried calling him a couple of times but remained unconcerned that I hadn’t spoken to him. We’d gone days without talking, and I figured we’d connect the following day.
Monday, June 22rd, started like any other day without Sanford. Quiet but productive until our Communications Director Joel Sawyer came down to tell me The State, the newspaper in Columbia, called asking where Sanford is. I assure him he’s working on his book, but since he’s traveling alone, I didn’t want to give details of his location for security purposes.
I tried Sanford again, still his voicemail.
A little after 2 pm, I can hear Joel coming down the hallway toward my office. He’s on the phone and mouths, “It’s Jenny.”
He says to her, “Hey Jenny, I’m with Scott; maybe you should tell him.”
Joel hands the phone over, and Jenny is already talking, “I just told Joel that I talked to Jim Davenport. I told him Mark was gone and missed Father’s Day with his sons.”
Jim Davenport was a State House reporter with the Associated Press. He was always tenacious. He so frequently submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for our communications that Joel and I would plant “Hey Jim” messages in our emails to see if one ever got caught up in his requests.
“Okay, Jenny, but he’s at the farm working on the book, right? He said he’d be reachable, but I haven’t talked to him.”
“I told Jim I don’t know where he is, but he missed Father’s Day with his sons. That’s what I told him.” I’d gotten the message; I needed information.
“Okay, but….” I started to say.
“He’s your problem now.”
- Click -
“Shit. She hung up,” I said as I handed Joel his phone.
Joel and I had both quit smoking in February. He’d started taking Chantix, and I wasn’t going to be the only guy left smoking in the office, so I quit with him.
He looked at me and said, “I’m going to the Corner Pantry [a gas station a block from the State House], and when I get back, we need to talk.”
“Get me a pack, too.”
I sat down and started making notes. I realized I was in “testifying” territory, and I needed to have every detail right. Little did I know, the next 48 hours were going to be brutal.
To be continued. Make sure you subscribe for the rest of the story.