Last week brought the latest salvo in the never-ending test of wills between Gov. Mark Sanford (R) and the South Carolina General Assembly — this time in the person of state Sen. Jake Knotts (R-Lexington).

Initially, the incident hit the highest reading ever on my non-scientific “Political Indignation Gauge” ™, but when I factored in the “not-in-session” and “personal animus” variables, scores on both sides were necessarily downgraded.

Sanford and the General Assembly have been at odds from the get-go because the governor has never met an expenditure he likes and politicians like to bring government money back home.

The current scrap concerns the 2006 National Governors Association conference, which Sanford managed to bring to Charleston. The event went off as planned, and it came in under budget by $101,524.14. Remember that number because it comes back in this story.

Now last spring, a nasty internet rumor targeting Knotts, a frequent and vocal critic of Sanford, began to circulate, alleging parentage of an out-of-wedlock child with a person of color. It was later discredited.

Anyhoo, Knotts believed that the folks in the governor’s office were responsible for the rumor, so he started sniffing around for a paper trail. In doing so, Knotts discovered that a Sanford staffer had initiated a successful request from the Competitive Grants Program for $150,000 to be used for the 2006 governor’s conference. In total, $1.2 million was raised for the conference, including the grant and private donations.

The grants program was created in 2005 with $18 million and was designed as an alternative funding option for local projects. The skinny is that the legislators created the program as a way of circumventing Sanford’s line-item veto proclivities. Not surprisingly, Sanford has called the competitive grants program a waste and criticized it because it wasn’t subject to accountability standards. He’s kinda correct, but I don’t have the space to go into it.

But on August 9, a check for $101,524.14 from the Charleston Heritage Foundation, the nonprofit host committee of the conference, was posted to Carolinians for Reform, another nonprofit. On the board for CFR are Sanford campaign contributors James Kuyk, Frank Zanin, and Tim Reese, all of Charleston. (CFR also received its confirmation from S.C. Secretary of State Mark Hammond as a charitable organization on October 2, the same day a hand-written application was submitted.)

Last Tuesday, Knotts began asking publicly why the leftover funds — all $101,524.14 of it — weren’t returned to the taxpayers and why someone in the governor’s office thought it was okay to direct the surplus funds to a group with ties to Sanford.

Sanford’s office tried to head off criticism the next day with spokesmodel Joel Sawyer saying the funds would be returned to the grant program: “The governor thinks he should be held to a higher standard.”

Too bad Sanford didn’t think so over a year ago.

Sawyer then attempted to spin the story, splitting hairs about the grant history. He said, “The money received from the grants program was all spent on [the governor’s conference] and the leftover money was private.”

Uh-huh. I was unaware that forensic accounting practices now include financial DNA testing.

Knotts told me, “All I’ve ever heard out of this guy since he got here was ‘pork barrel this’ and ‘pork barrel that,’ and here he is, the first one at the trough … When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And be a man about it.”

Now, Knotts is in politics for the same reason Sanford is — to further his own agenda and that of his peeps. He was a major force among the pro-marriage amendment crowd and maintains some unfortunate social issue opinions. At the end of the day, neither one of the principals in this story is the good guy.

A tiny measure of good for the citizens of South Carolina might have been accomplished, but this ceaseless crap-slinging diminishes both them and by extension, ourselves. Yay us!