Former Sen. Robert Ford might have used the wrong strategy last year when he tried to defend himself against those pesky ethics complaints.

Instead of claiming horrendous bookkeeping skills, he should have just asked for the charges to be dropped.

After all, it worked for Richard Eckstrom.

Last week the comptroller general asked the state Ethics Commission to dismiss charges that he broke the law by using campaign funds to pay for his trip to the 2012 Republican National Convention.

The Ethics Commission staff argued that because Eckstrom was not a delegate or a speaker, and was only traveling with his girlfriend (who was an alternate delegate), he had no official reason to be there in sunny Florida.

He was basically on vacation.

But the commission ignored its staff's recommendation and dismissed the second ethics complaint against the third-term comptroller in eight years (the other was for driving his state van up north on a family vacation).

Want to know why the commission dismissed the charges against Eckstrom?

Because the law is pretty vague on what's cool and what's not. For all their chest-thumping and campaign promises, state officials are not really serious about "ethics reform."

Otherwise, South Carolina's ethics laws would not still have loopholes big enough to drive a state-issued minivan through.

Laws to nowhere

Last month, the state Senate passed a new ethics bill.

Lawmakers are still quibbling over differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation, but it's basically much ado about nothing much.

The bill requires elected officials to disclose all their sources of income - but not the amounts. No, because that might be embarrassing.

Sound familiar? It seems to have been inspired by an ethics complaint filed against Gov. Nikki Haley a few years back. When she was a state representative, Haley failed to report income from two separate companies that do business with the state. The House Ethics Committee dismissed the charges because the law is too vague.

You think?

Now, it's not fair to beat up on Haley or anyone else for doing business with a company that has dealings with the state. These folks have a right to make a living. If you tried to limit their employment opportunities to companies that don't cross paths with state government, well, they all would have to work at Chili's.

The problem comes if the person being paid by Company X then tries to affect policy that would enhance Company X's business. But the law is a little vague on all this.

That's why the state Ethics Commission so kindly acquiesced to Eckstrom's request - vague laws. There is a provision in there that says it's legal to use campaign funds to attend political events.

The staff argued that without a purpose to be at the event, it was a vacation. Eckstrom's attorneys said it wasn't like he went to Disney World.

That may be true, but it's a Mickey Mouse excuse.

Putting up a front

The General Assembly has been loath to tackle any real ethics reform.

"We need to pass a bill that closes ethical loopholes and restores public confidence that the work their government does is for public benefit and not selfish enrichment," says state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston.

He's absolutely right, especially seeing as how these problems aren't going away. Our current governor has been plagued by allegations of ethical shenanigans, the previous governor paid the largest ethics fine in state history, allegations of ethics violations have House Speaker Bobby Harrell facing a grand jury investigation, and the last lieutenant governor had to resign his office over ethical lapses.

As weak as South Carolina law is, you still can't write off PlayStations as campaign expenses.

The law also is applied unevenly. The Legislature wants to know every source of income for every elected official, yet will pass no law governing political action committees, which operate in South Carolina with free rein. It's Koch heaven here.

And then there's Ford. Although he admittedly had horrendous bookkeeping skills - and a receipt from a sex shop to explain - the Legislature took him down almost without a fair hearing. A lot of people from both sides of the aisle say Ford was targeted to make it look like state lawmakers were serious about ethics reform.

Except they aren't. Otherwise it wouldn't be OK to use campaign money to go to Tampa to watch a wax figure talk to an empty chair.

Which is, by very definition, Disney World.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com