Racing Against the Clock
Looking for the Truth in a Haystack
If you remember the series 24, you’ll recall Jack Bauer was always racing against the clock to uncover some plot and stop it from happening. The afternoon of June 22, 2009, was like that for me. The mad scramble to figure out where Mark Sanford was and trying to respond in real-time made for the longest day of my life.
In my last piece, Jenny Sanford informed me she’s spoken to a reporter and had no idea where he was. As I started making notes of what I knew and what happened, a pack of Marlboro Lights landed on my desk. I looked up, and our Communications Director, Joel Sawyer, had successfully acquired two packs of cigarettes, Camel Menthol for him and Marlboro Lights for me.
“Fumar?” he said. A leftover joke from the 2002 campaign that’d become our code word for going out for a smoke in the office. We were about to break almost five months without a cigarette.
We had to develop a press response like 30 minutes ago. We knew the Associated Press and The State (the Columbia newspaper) were working on stories, and we had nothing.
“Tell me everything you know,” Joel asked, assuming I had something.
I remember getting a head rush from smoking for the first time in a while, “I’ve tried calling him all weekend, and he doesn’t answer. I think he’s in Coosaw working on the book.”
“Do we tell people that?”
“I don’t have a fucking clue where he is. Let’s go with he’s out of pocket working on some projects.”
“So no details? You gotta give me something here.”
“That’s all I got for now.”
Joel goes off to release the statement. “The Governor is taking some time away from the office this week to recharge after the stimulus battle. He is taking some time to work on a couple of projects that have fallen by the wayside.”
The scientific phrase for that release is polishing a turd. Joel had a knack for bluffing with a weak hand. It wouldn't last, but it would buy us time.
When a crisis hits, two truths happen simultaneously: 1. Someone is hiding something, and 2. Someone is leaking it.
Life in the Governor’s Office is a fishbowl, and information in the State House is currency. So, I had to find the first person without helping the second one.
I was notorious for controlling information to prevent leaks. I had a standard speech to appointees that if I ever read about their nomination before Sanford announced it, their nomination would never see the light of day.
There was good reason for the paranoia. During the transition, one of Sanford’s Cabinet appointees withdrew just before the press conference because of a past financial issue. His family stood in the crowd as staffers pulled back press releases distributed at the event. It was an embarrassment, and I never wanted to see it repeated.
At this point, I trusted Joel. Everyone else was suspect, but I had to figure out what we would do.
Tell Me What You Know
The most enduring relationship in Mark Sanford’s life is his scheduler. They know everything about what he’s doing. They’re expected to be protective of that information - even from Jenny Sanford. Those who lasted past a month typically developed an inflated sense of self-worth since they worked for Sanford and only Sanford. There were exceptions. His scheduler at the time, Mary Neil, was one of them. She had a way of telling me things without telling me things. It kept her safe and me informed, sort of.
By the time Sanford disappeared, Mary Neil was seven months pregnant. She was my first stop during the interrogation. Outside Sanford’s office sat the Deputy Chief of Staff, the personal assistant, the scheduler, and the deputy scheduler. This office was the center of Mark Sanford’s most sensitive operation, to him anyway. It was also purgatory for staff waiting to get in and those trying to leave.
One of their jobs was to interrupt meetings. There were three messages: 1. “Five minutes” (wrap it up), 2. “Your next meeting is here.” (Get out), and, if the visitor didn’t get the message, 3. “I’m sorry, but you’re behind schedule.” These gave Sanford natural exits, so it didn’t fall on him to be rude to the guests. It also helped us control the tempo of the meeting—all part of the home-field advantage.
Mary Neil and the deputy scheduler were alone when I walked into the office. “Okay, Jenny just told me she doesn’t know where Governor Sanford is, and I need to get a hold of him.”
“I don’t know; he planned the trip on his own.”
I’ll stop here and honestly say I didn’t believe that. Sanford was computer illiterate, and at that time, he was terrible with life’s little details. But when you’re in a crisis, you skip past accusations to get information.
“Tell me what you know.”
“That’s it; he planned the trip and told us he would be gone for ten days.”
Then she said the words that told me everything I needed to know, “Have you talked to April?”
April was our Deputy Chief of Staff. April and I were unique with Team Sanford because we worked for him in the congressional office, campaign, and Governor’s office.
She came with the office furniture in the First Congressional District when Sanford got elected in 1994. By his third term, she’d become Chief of Staff in Charleston, and I was the Legislative Director in DC.
We had a special status in Sanford world because he relied on us heavily. I was the policy/political wing, and she was the fixer/vault. He’d complain about us behind our backs, but never were either of us in danger of losing our jobs. We talked every day, and I trusted her with everything.
April could get a passport faster than anyone I know, and there’s a high probability that if you have a document signed by Mark Sanford, it was done by her hand. She sat right outside his door when she was in Columbia and dealt with his personal life, a task I readily left to her. But if the scheduler tells me to talk to her, the answer is complicated.
Bring in the Clowns
Before talking to April, I get a call from the Lieutenant Governor’s Chief of Staff. At the time, the Governor and Lt. Governor ran separately. Sanford and Andre Bauer were both elected in 2002, and by 2009, Bauer planned to run for Governor in the next election. The relationship between them was terrible. Sanford thought Bauer was too much of an insider and an intellectual lightweight to be helpful.
It went from bad to personal when Sanford vetoed security detail funding for the Lt. Governor. The detail became necessary when Bauer was caught driving 101 miles per hour. He’d used radio to tell the cops to back off because “SC-2” was in the car. Sanford vetoed the funds every year, and the legislature overrode. The security detail probably kept the drivers of South Carolina safer than the Lt. Governor.
Bauer’s staunchest political ally, Senator Jake Knotts, Jakie, as he was known in the State House, was also making noise. Knotts represented Lexington County in the Senate, taking the seat when Representative Joe Wilson was elected to Congress. He and Andre shared a political consultant at one point, the late Rod Shealy, and they were political allies through and through.
In 2008, Sanford endorsed one of Jakie’s primary opponents, Katrina Shealy, who lost narrowly in a runoff against Knotts. After the whole disappearance blew over, a political consultant confided in me that Knotts had someone following Sanford and, at one point, me to get dirt on us. True or not, Knotts was the first person to know Sanford was missing. At 2:30 that afternoon, he also sent out a statement demanding to know who was running the state if Sanford was missing.
Bauer’s Chief of Staff was the daughter of a longtime Sanford supporter, going back to his first congressional run. We were friendly, even when our bosses couldn’t be. She’d been tasked to get information, like whether I had talked to him or knew where he was. I couldn’t lie or give any meaningful information. I told her I’d been trying to reach him and would let her know when I did. Easy enough.
Bauer’s spokesman turned that into we had talked to him, and we did know where he was. My guess is Bauer’s team was ramping up the crisis because he was “SC-2” and wanted to be at the helm. I later testified that he would have been briefed and called the shots if there had been an actual emergency. At that particular time, the only crisis was “Where is Mark Sanford?” and he was not helping.
A Gamble to Find the Truth
It had been more than two hours since I last spoke to Jenny Sanford. It seemed more like days. I was desperate to put something more out than “Sanford’s somewhere doing something.”
“Jenny, you have no idea where Mark is?”
“That’s what I told Jim.”
“I need to put something else out there.” I responded, and in the moment, what I said next made sense, “I’m going to tell them I’ve talked to Mark, and he’s okay.”
It was a lie, intended to get a response. I thought making Jenny believe I was about to go out with a fake statement would get me the rest of the story.
“Have you talked to him?”
“No, his phone goes to voicemail. But I got nothing else. No one knows anything.”
“You’ve talked to all of the staff?”
“Not everyone. I still need to talk to April.”
“I wouldn’t put that out there if it isn’t true.”
Shit. She’s good. With everything going on, she’s still calculating the scenarios.
“And there’s nothing else you can tell me?”
“You should talk to April.”
In the rearview, I can’t blame Jenny because she didn’t pour out her life to me at that moment. I’ve read and re-read the sections of her book where Sanford is half-in and half-out of their marriage. She was trying to figure out how to explain to their four sons what was about to become television fodder for the weeks, months, and years ahead. That’s tough enough without holding my hand, and she didn’t need to do it.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Given all that I said about my relationship with April, why hadn’t I called her right away? I suspected that I wouldn’t get what she knew but what Sanford wanted me to think. Those who knew or even suspected where Sanford had gone would lean on April to be the messenger. Whatever she told me would be all I was going to get.
First, I had to correct a story posted courtesy of the Lieutenant Governor’s office that someone from our office had spoken to Sanford and knew his location. That was half true, but I knew neither and assumed the comments were based on my conversation with Bauer’s Chief of Staff. So I dashed off an email because I needed a written record of the communication. Joel Sawyer put out a statement to the same effect to the media.
While Joel was cleaning up the mess, I stepped outside and called April.
“April, I know you’ve heard, and everyone is telling me to talk to you.”
“I don’t know, Scottie.” She is one of only two people who get away with that.
“I’ve got to put something else out there. He’s safe. He’s not dead. He’s working on his book…”
“Did he tell you about the Appalachian Trail?”
“What are you talking about?”
“That’s where he said he would be.”
Okay, this was too innocuous. How would no one else know this or volunteer this information?
“You’re telling me that’s where he is?”
“That’s what he said before he left. I’m going to the Appalachian Trail.”
Joel walked out and lit up a cigarette.
“April’s telling me he’s on the Appalachian Trail.”
Joel almost choked on the inhale. “Are you serious?”
“And if I needed to go with this, I could?”
“Scottie, do what you think is right. But that’s what he told me.”
I was getting nowhere further, so we wrapped up the call.
Joel walked down the steps and asked, “So do we put that out?”
“Not now. It doesn’t feel right yet. Give me more time.”
He agreed; it was too easy. He’d keep fending off the press for now, but we needed to do something. Now.
In Sanford’s book, Two Roads Diverged, he offered this,
Even with my head swirling, I knew it was too dangerous for Belen to come to South Carolina. But I thought I could go to Argentina over a long weekend and get it all figured out. The open window was narrow. It had to fall between the end of the legislative session and Jenny’s deadline of early July.
But my plan proved to be as poorly constructed as it was desperate.
My last action in leaving the office for that fateful weekend was to tell one person that if Jenny called, to say that I was ‘hiking the Appalachian Trail.’ I was certain she would not call since I had been given strict orders that there should be no communication between us during our trial separation. The casually offered Appalachian Trail instructions just crossed a last t in my final preparations for the ill-fated journey.
His instructions to me had been:
‘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.’
Even years later, Sanford constructs a 10-day trip as a “long weekend,” and the best recollection is that he gave someone instructions to tell Jenny that he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail.”
A Moment of Reflection
As the story made its way from state to national news, I was getting contacted by close political allies, old friends, and concerned legislators. In her book, Staying True, Jenny Sanford shares that she’d known about the affair for months. She also goes into painstaking detail about the friends enlisted to help Mark see the error of his ways, reconcile with Jenny, and do what’s right for his family.
Among those who called me were people on that list. Fully aware of the conflict in Mark’s life and the possibility that he’d disappeared to see his mistress again. When this sort of thing happens, you spend a bit of your life replaying those conversations, wondering if you’d missed something, wondering why someone didn’t just say, “Scott, you need to know something about Mark.” Something, anything rather than watch me stand almost alone against a barrage of scrutiny without a sword or a shield.
My relationship with Sanford revolved around politics and policy. He couldn’t have cared less about my wife or family or that of anyone else on the staff. That any of us were human beings stopped at the door or maybe never occurred at all. Our lives were repeatedly cycling in the state's business, and we could have personal lives when he wasn’t looking.
Because of that, I viewed his life outside of the office in much the same way. If he had a personal life, good for him. The more I knew about it, the more I resented the hours I worked and the bullshit we all endured in the name of political goodness. I had decided to walk away, but even in my hour of liberation, Mark Sanford screwed that up.
I swing between resentment and understanding the decisions other people make. It’s been 13 years, and I have not settled on the answer yet. It’s possible I may never. I have no idea how I would have handled that situation because I was never given a choice.
With a story in hand, I have to figure out what to do with it.
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Knotts and Katrina Shealy would have a rematch in 2012. In that election, Knotts used a poorly-worded statute to have Shealy thrown off the ballot, and more than 200 other candidates would also lose out. Shealy mounted a successful write-in campaign for the November 2012 general election. She’s been an outstanding senator for the people of Lexington County ever since.