ATLANTA – Gov. Mark Sanford told a newspaper he was in Argentina, not hiking the Appalachian Trail as his staff had told the public to explain his sudden absence. He said he "wanted to do something exotic" to unwind after losing a fight over federal stimulus money.
The State newspaper reported that Sanford arrived Wednesday morning at Atlanta's international airport on a flight from Buenos Aires, where he drove along the coast of what he called a "beautiful" city.
The Republican governor told the South Carolina newspaper he considering hiking, but at the last minute changed his mind.
"But I said 'no' I wanted to do something exotic," Sanford told the newspaper.
Sanford's spokesman Joel Sawyer declined to immediately comment to The Associated Press, and the governor did not return cell phone messages.
Sanford planned a news conference at 2 p.m. Wednesday at his office in Columbia.
Critics slammed his administration for lying to the public.
"Lies. Lies. Lies. That's all we get from his staff. That's all we get from his people. That's all we get from him," said state Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia. "Why all the big cover-up?"
On Monday, Knotts raised questions about where the governor was after hearing reports from security officials that the governor could not be contacted and his whereabouts were unknown. The governor's wife, Jenny Sanford, told The Associated Press she had not seen him since Thursday but was not concerned because he'd told her he wanted to get away and do some writing.
Later Monday, Sanford's staff said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. A day later, they said he had called and planned to cut his trip short and return to work Wednesday because of all the attention his absence was getting.
Sanford said he has taken adventure trips for years to unwind. He has visited the coast of Turkey, the Greek Isles and South America, sometimes with friends and sometimes by himself. "I would get out of the bubble I am in," he told the newspaper.
Sanford said the legislative session was a difficult one, particularly because he lost a fight over whether he should accept $700 million in stimulus money. Sanford said he wanted lawmakers to spend the money on debt instead of urgent budget needs, but lost a court lawsuit.
"It was a long session and I needed a break," Sanford said.
Sanford said he tried to return through Atlanta to avoid the media attention his absence.
He declined to give any additional details about what he did other than to say he was alone and that he drove along the coastline.
Trying to drive along the coast could frustrate a weekend visitor to Argentina. In Buenos Aires, the Avenida Costanera is the only coastal road, and it's less than two miles long. Reaching coastal resorts to the south requires a drive of nearly four hours on an inland highway with views of endless cattle ranches. To the north is a river delta of islands reached only by boat.
A spokesman for Argentina's immigration agency wouldn't comment Wednesday on whether Sanford entered the country, citing privacy laws.
When The State asked Sanford at the airport why his staff said he was on the Appalachian Trail, Sanford replied, "I don't know."
Sanford later said "in fairness to his staff," he had told them he might go hiking on the Appalachian Trial.
Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer said he was concerned that the governor's staff lied about Sanford's whereabouts, adding that if they didn't know where he was they should have said so.
"For his staff to lie to the people of South Carolina and say he was one place when in fact he wasn't, that concerns me," Bauer said.
Sanford was in Argentina a year ago as part of an economic development trip to South America. In more recent months, he was rumored as a potential presidential contender in 2012. His critics brushed that aside Wednesday.
"Unless he runs for president of Argentina, I think he has no chance of becoming president. The rest of the country wouldn't have taken him seriously anyway," said Dick Harpootlian, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman who rapped Sanford for "apparently taking off to run away from home like some hormone-infused adolescent."
Thad Beyle, a political scientist and expert on governors at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, said Sanford's missteps require restoring credibility at the staff level. "My guess is they've got to do a lot. It shows they didn't know what he was up to and what was going on" Beyle said.
Sanford, a trim, 49-year-old former real estate investor and Air Force reservist, is typically drained at the end of a legislative session, former aides said.
"It's not unusual to take off and kind of be by himself," said state Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican and Sanford's former chief of staff. "It's part of what makes him him."
The governor has long been known as a loner — bucking GOP leadership during three U.S. House terms and casting the only dissenting vote on Medicaid coverage for some breast and cervical cancer treatment. He clashes often with the Republicans who control both chambers of his state Legislature, once famously carrying two piglets to the door of the House in opposition to what he said was pork-barrel spending.
But past vacations never left Sanford completely out of touch, said Chris Drummond, Sanford's former spokesman. At worst, Sanford would call in daily or would respond to voice mails.
Who was in charge became the political and practical question.
Essentially, Sanford's staffers said they'd decide who to call if an emergency popped up and the governor couldn't be reached. The state's constitution says a temporary absence would give the lieutenant governor full authority in the state. But the temporary absence has never been defined.
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