In retrospect, Nikki Haley probably should have just given Mark Sanford that football ticket.

The cold war between the former and current South Carolina governors was just one subplot of The New York Times Magazine's profile of Sanford this past Sunday.

Seems Haley denied Sanford's request a couple of years back to give one of his four boys a ticket to a USC football game

She also refused to let that same Sanford son have lunch at the governor's mansion - where he grew up - with a couple of friends.

Yeah, that's petty. And it doesn't make Haley look very nice. But the real trouble is the other anecdote that Sanford, or his friends, told The Times - the story that suggests Haley may have violated state ethics laws.

According to the article, in the spring of 2010 Haley and her political consultant visited the governor's office and badgered Sanford to spend $400,000 "on a media campaign supporting her candidacy." He admittedly gave in, and it must have taken some real talking given how tight he is.

So just before the primary, ReformSC - a nonprofit issues advocacy group formed shortly after Sanford became governor - ran ads touting Haley as a reformer.

Haley was lagging a distant fourth in the Republican gubernatorial primary at the time. Well, until those ads started running.

If that anecdote is true, and people close to Sanford swear it is, then it raises serious ethical questions.

See, there's a South Carolina law that prohibits "coordination" between a candidate's campaign and other organizations.

And asking for an ad, and then getting it, sounds a lot like coordination.

Glass houses

Haley has always touted herself as an ethics champion.

Her campaign says that goes back to her days as a state representative. It's true that as a member of the state House of Representatives she sponsored legislation to require the General Assembly to record every one of its votes. Transparency!

Of course, she got the idea from the South Carolina Policy Council, which sometimes gets credit for actually raising the issue - and sometimes doesn't.

Despite her claims of being an ethics reformer, Haley has had trouble with her own ethics a couple of times. South Carolina businessman and Sanford confidante John Rainey filed a complaint that Haley, as a House member, was lobbying on behalf of companies that paid her, either as a consultant or member of the staff.

Rainey claimed she used her office to help a hospital build a substantial addition, and an engineering firm clear up problems it had with plans to build a state farmers' market. He had emails that some people thought were pretty incriminating.

But the House Ethics Committee cleared her.

More than one Statehouse insider has suggested that people who live in glass Houses of Representatives should not to throw stones. In other words, Haley's camp threatened to point out their hypocrisy. Which was smart, and effective.

Since that time, Haley has supported every piece of legislation with the word "ethics" attached. It doesn't matter if those bills actually do anything to fix a political system that is dysfunctional at best, and mind-numbingly corrupt at worst.

The court that counts

People who know state ethics laws say the account in The New York Times Magazine raises big questions.

The biggest is: Does asking Sanford to run ads on her behalf constitute improper "coordination?"

Haley supporters say she remembers events a little differently than the article. And because ReformSC wasn't a PAC, there was nothing illegal about it.

Haley spokesmen say the ad in question was issues-based.

"Governor Haley greatly appreciated ReformSC's advocacy of on-the-record voting, which was a key reform supported by Governor Sanford and then-State Representative Haley in 2010, and which became law after Governor Haley's election in 2011," says Haley campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey.

The only problem is, the ads came so close to candidate advocacy that a judge ordered ReformSC to take them off the air.

Now, the truth is a lot of campaigns flirt with all kinds of coordination with PACs and nonprofits, which can accept more money from individuals and spend it with less oversight.

And everyone knows money is the name of the game. You buy enough ads that say someone is a reformer and there are a lot of gullible people who believe it without needing another shred of proof.

It was on the TV, after all.

Don't expect anything to come of this. Seems state ethics laws have a statute of limitations, which is four years - exactly one election cycle for statewide offices.

So, even if there was anything inappropriate or illegal about Haley asking Sanford directly to spend money on her behalf, she can't be fined or even charged.

But, as one Sanford associate notes, there is no statute of limitations in the court of public opinion. Getting that story out there is good information for folks to know, so they can vote accordingly.

Makes you wonder if that wasn't the whole point of that little story.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.