Former state Sen. Robert Ford walked into the Richland County Courthouse on Wednesday morning to reluctantly plead guilty on four ethics-related charges.

A few blocks away at the Statehouse, Citadel cadets were preparing to escort dignitaries to the governor’s inauguration.

It would take longer to seat the long parade of lawmakers, judges, former governors, constitutional officers, congressmen, college presidents and cabinet members than it would to ruin Ford’s name and end his political career.

Ford’s hearing lasted less than half an hour. Forty minutes passed before the ego walk mercifully drew to a close.

When it did, Gov. Nikki Haley used her inaugural address to lament how the public’s trust in government had been shaken by revelations of “misuses of public funds, public office, and worst of all, the public trust.”

You know, like that circus down the street.

Haley quoted Martin Luther King Jr., claimed his mantle of public service for the state officials seated around her. Of course, many of those same people fought Ford for years as he tried to establish a state holiday for King.

Which is Monday, by the way.

Ford marched with King, worked for him. Before he was run out of the Senate — which, at least in part, is a self-inflicted wound — the only criminal charges he’d ever faced were related to his fight for civil rights.

So, despite the governor’s sunny proclamation, it was not a great day in South Carolina.

At least not for Robert Ford. Or anyone, honestly.

Ford is accused of using campaign money for his personal benefit.

He pleaded guilty but swore — cursed, actually — that he only did so because he did not have the money to fight a long court battle.

His lack of resources is not in dispute.

Prosecutors say Ford used campaign money to, among other things, pay his light bill, make his car payment, buy food — and purchase what he described as gifts for folks over the years. If that’s true, it is certainly a violation of the law.

Ford claims many of these expenses were related to politics, that his home served as his district office. Few people appear to believe him.

This isn’t over. Ford will not be sentenced until April, although most predict he will get very little jail time — if any. That isn’t much comfort.

Fact is, Robert Ford should not spend one day in jail. Not when so many other politicians who have pleaded guilty to misusing far larger dollar amounts were only given probation.

A different outcome for Ford would raise ugly questions about race in a state that doesn’t need any more of them. After all, why do you think Marjory Wentworth was cut from the inaugural program?

It wasn’t about time — she could have read her poem nearly 20 times during the procession. But it was all over Facebook that the poem was in part about slavery in South Carolina’s past.

And, well, that didn’t fit with the positive, exclamation point-filled message state officials wanted to send.

The people who took such glee in making an example of Ford, of using him to show that they are tough on political corruption, had better hope he doesn’t go to jail.

And that’s not just because it would suggest different rules for people who aren’t white.

It would set an ugly precedent at a most inconvenient time. See, there are rumors that the feds are sniffing around the Statehouse.

Maybe there’s nothing to it, and there is no reprise of Operation Lost Trust on the horizon. Let’s hope not.

But anyone who thinks that Ford, Bobby Harrell and Ken Ard are the only people in this state with accounting problems is living in fantasy land. No one is immune.

Haley talked tough about people who have abused the public trust in her speech, conveniently failing to mention all the ethics charges that have been leveled against her over the years. Of course, she has never been found guilty of anything — well, other than not listing the occupation of some campaign donors on disclosure forms.

And many of those people thumping their chests and crowing about their commitment to ethics reform have never been charged, either.

But, you know what they say in the South. Tomorrow is another day.

Haley is right about one thing: There are some good and honorable people on both sides of the aisle who serve this state.

And there are some people who could not withstand scrutiny any better than Ford.

For those people, it’s only a great day in South Carolina until it’s their turn under the microscope.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com