, WASHINGTON, Jun 25 – South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford has admitted having an affair with a woman in Argentina, but refused to answer questions about whether he would resign from office.
The conservative Republican governor from the southeastern US state made the admission at a press conference he had called to explain his mysterious disappearance over several days last week.
After detailing his previous adventure trips, "profound frustrations" and "emotional" exhaustion following the recent legislative session, he eventually acknowledged having an extramarital affair.
"So, the bottom line is this: I have been unfaithful to my wife," Sanford, 49, told a crush of reporters.
Sanford’s admission comes in the wake of a similar revelation from another rising Republican star, Senator John Ensign of Nevada, who last Tuesday admitted cheating on his wife but did not resign his US Senate seat.
Sanford, once considered a potential Republican contender for the presidential nomination in 2012, said he would resign from his position as head of the Republican Governor’s Association, but refused to say whether he would give up his post as South Carolina’s top executive.
First elected governor in 2002, Sanford has one year left in his second term, and is constitutionally prohibited from running for another term.
The press conference was called after days of speculation as to where Sanford spent a period of five to seven days during which his staff, and even his wife, were unable to confirm his whereabouts.
Sanford’s staff at first said he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail, but then retracted that statement, provoking a media frenzy that culminated in Wednesday’s bizarre press conference.
The governor spent much of his opening remarks offering apologies – to his wife and four children, his friends, supporters and voters from South Carolina – before announcing his adultery.
Sanford said he had spent a week with a woman in Argentina with whom he had conducted a months-long affair that developed out of an initially "very innocent" eight-year friendship conducted mostly via email.
"It developed into something much more than that," Sanford admitted.
The governor, whose voice wavered as he brushed away tears, lamented the consequences of his affair.
"I hurt a lot of different folks. All I can say is that I apologize," he said.
Sanford left unexplained how he first made contact with his distant mistress, but said their relationship began via "casual" emails.
South Carolina’s largest newspaper, The State, on its website printed excerpts of what it says were romantic emails exchanged between Sanford and the woman, identified only as Maria.
"Please sleep soundly knowing that despite the best efforts of my head my heart cries out for you, your voice, your body, the touch of your lips, the touch of your finger tips and an even deeper connection to your soul," Sanford wrote, according to the paper.
The scandal also raised concerns about the governor’s previous travel.
Washington-based Politico magazine reported that he has taken at least three taxpayer-paid trips to Argentina since taking office, although it was unclear if he had met the woman on those trips.
The governor said Wednesday he paid for his latest trip himself, and that it came five months after he first admitted his indiscretions to his wife and began attempting to reconcile with her.
"Oddly enough, I spent the last five days of my life crying in Argentina," Sanford said.
The affair is likely to deal a death-blow to Sanford’s political future as a Republican candidate who had appealed to constituents with strong family values.
Sanford’s wife Jenny, who was not at the press conference, issued a statement saying she had asked her husband to leave their home for a trial separation two weeks ago.
"We reached a point where I felt it was important to look my sons in the eyes and maintain my dignity, self-respect, and my basic sense of right and wrong. I therefore asked my husband to leave two weeks ago," the statement said.
"I deeply regret the recent actions of my husband Mark, and their potential damage to our children."
The mother of four said she was open to a reconciliation.
"I remain willing to forgive Mark completely for his indiscretions and to welcome him back, in time, if he continues to work towards reconciliation with a true spirit of humility and repentance."