Clean up legal flaws unearthed by Sanford drama

IT WAS BOTH disturbing and reassuring to see Senate Ethics Chairman Wes Hayes sending a "reminder" to senators that it was illegal to take money out of their campaign accounts to "reimburse" themselves for expenses already covered with tax money.

Disturbing because, as House Ethics Chairman Roland Smith told The State's Gina Smith, nobody should have to be told that. And Sen. Hayes' protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, this isn't a natural outgrowth of the ethics charges against Gov. Sanford, because he hasn't been accused of doing anything like that; it smacks of a violation the senator has reason to believe has occurred.

It's reassuring, though, because it at least suggests that somebody's paying attention to all the attacks on the governor's ethics and considering how vulnerable others might be to them.

The interpretation of our state ethics law has been so loose that it's possible to understand how the governor would figure that some illegal practices were legal. That's not defending his actions; although the law might be open to some interpretation, the intent - and the difference between right and wrong - is clear enough that anyone with integrity would manage to stay on the right side of it, say, when it comes to using the state plane for your personal taxi.

Intent aside, though, several laws that have come into question as a result of the increased scrutiny of the governor are less than clear - or just downright nonsensical - and so we hope legislators will do a little ethics housekeeping in the upcoming session. Specifically they should:

-Better define what constitutes "official business" when it comes to using the state plane. The governor's attorneys rely on an attorney general's opinion that defines that as pretty much anything you wouldn't be asked to do if you weren't in office. That's obviously too broad a definition, although it might be tricky to write just the right one. But at least lawmakers could add some parameters, so that officials don't hop on the plane just because it's more convenient than driving. And while they're at it, they should seriously consider putting different rules in place for a governor than for everyone else - perhaps allowing governors to extend official use for personal use if they pick up the extra cost.

-Better define an "economic benefit" that officials are not allowed to derive from their positions. Although we find no ambiguity in the law, it is written in such a convoluted way that officials keep getting away with violating it; that should be easy enough to fix. This is much more important than the plane rules, because it expands the question beyond the state plane, which we tend to fixate on at the expense of other inappropriate uses of state resources. Taking a state car on vacation certainly fits the bill, yet nothing happened to Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom when he did that, which, as we said at the time, suggested that the law needed to clarified.

-Eliminate the silly cheapest-ticket rule for the governor. It makes sense to say state employees can't hit up the state for first-class or even business-class travel unless there is no reasonable way around it. But the governor is seen (if incorrectly) by the rest of the world as the leader of our state, and the law should acknowledge that.

-Clarify how campaign funds can be spent. This has been a murky area since the law was enacted, with elected officials spending campaign funds for everything from new tires to inaugural gowns. While it would be unreasonable to try to write a list of items on which campaign funds can be spent, surely lawmakers can provide a bit of specificity, to keep officials from covering personal expenses with money that's supposed to cover the costs of campaigning and holding office.

These are by no means the most pressing problems facing our state, but they're staring us in the face. If our lawmakers can't use our unfortunate experiences to correct simple and obvious flaws in our laws, then how in the world can we expect them to make meaningful, proactive changes on larger issues?