Let's just put the skunk on the table here.

By going after former Democratic Sen. Robert Ford with such a vengeance, and slapping him with perhaps the largest fine in Senate Ethics Committee history, lawmakers have set a dangerous precedent - or trap - for themselves.

The next time they summarily dismiss ethics charges against a rich, white Republican - as they are wont to do - it's going to look like there is a double standard at work in South Carolina.

That, or they will look like a bunch of racists.

Unfortunately, that's just the way it is. And they should know it.

On Wednesday, the Senate Ethics Committee pummeled Ford for the second time in a year. Last June, Ford resigned amid accusations from the committee that he had used campaign money for personal expenses, ending a 20-year career in the Legislature.

Those charges were sent to the state attorney general, where they are still under review.

So what do lawmakers do? This week they announce they've been watching Ford in his post-political career. They say that since his resignation, he has been using more money from his campaign account for personal expenses - and they fined him nearly $45,000.

For $14,000 in questionable expenditures.

You know, if lawmakers were as vigilant with S.C. State University, the Department of Social Services and the Department of Transportation as they are poor old Robert Ford, South Carolina might not be such an unmitigated disaster.

So much for charity

OK, so obviously the evidence against Ford does not look good.

The Ethics Committee says Ford moved money from his campaign to another account and paid his bills and several other personal expenses with the funds.

His attorney says that because Ford works out of his home, some expenses that appear personal are actually business related. And state ethics laws allow you to use campaign funds to pay for business expenses related to the office even after you've retired. That's true.

You can also give money to a charity, as Ford said he did. But he is intimately involved with the charity, and can sign checks for it.

So, yeah, he's going to have a hard time in the court of public opinion.

Ford's attorney says the former senator is a horrible bookkeeper. No argument there. Ford says he looks forward to clearing his name, that he is completely innocent.

Even if the state attorney general eventually says otherwise, Ford is right about one thing: he is being used as an example, a scapegoat - evidence that lawmakers take ethics violations seriously.

Yeah, right. In recent years, the Senate Ethics Committee has fined no one more than $5,575, and that was for unreported contributions. Most of the fines it levies are $100 late filing fees.

But the Ethics Committee hit arch criminal Robert Ford with $45,000 in fines. Come on - the state Ethics Commission charged former Gov. Mark Sanford only $74,000 for flying first class on the taxpayers' dime.

And this is not about the people's money, it's about money people donate to politicians (caveat emptor, people).

So, yeah, it doesn't look fair.

Should have gone PAC

The state Senate has done Rep. Bobby Harrell no favors here.

See, this is going to look even funnier when the House Ethics Committee is forced to investigate ethics charges against the House speaker.

They likely will rule that the allegations against Harrell are the result of poor bookkeeping. Maybe they'll slap him with a fine - but not the biggest one in committee history. This, after all, is the panel that did not find probable cause against Gov. Nikki Haley for charges that she lobbied while a House member.

And they don't even like her.

Now, fairly or not, everything will be measured against how Ford was treated.

Ford's biggest problem is that he never played the game exactly like everyone else.

Charities are passť in the world of modern politics.

What he should have done is set up a political action committee, which can accept all kinds of money, not report who's giving it and remain vague about how it's spent.

Yeah, that's the ticket.

Now, no one is suggesting lawmakers look the other way for Ford or any other person who might have ethics troubles. But unless the law is applied fairly, it's useless.

If the Legislature was serious about ethics reform, it would do something about PACs and the crazy spending that goes on there. But they won't do that. It would mess up the system.

It's much easier to just beat up Robert Ford and pat themselves on the back than to actually clean up the joint.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com