March 27, 2012 at 8:02 AM ET
The Center for Public Integrity released a report detailing the risk of corruption and lack of accountability in all 50 states last week. The findings of the report should worry anyone who believes state governments are transparent and free of corruption. Of course, no state is without flaws. Unfortunately, nearly every state received a grade that would give residents cause for concern.
The Center for Public Integrity’s report examined issues concerning accountability and ethics in each state government. States were graded on 330 separate metrics, which were grouped into 14 major categories. Overall grades are based on the average grades in the major categories, which included lobbying disclosure, political financing, internal auditing, ethics enforcement agencies and redistricting.
Most states scored poorly. No state earned an A, and only five states received better than a B+. More than half the states received a D+ or worse. Scored from 1 to 100, eight states earned failing grades of 59 or below from the project.
24/7 Wall St. examined the eight states that received an F and the five states that scored B- or better. A review of the states with the highest and lowest scores illustrates that regular monitoring of the government by citizens, public employees and watchdog groups is essential to encourage state integrity.
According to Randy Barrett, Communications Director for the Center for Public Integrity, one of the most widespread issues throughout these state governments is the lack of public access to information, which, he says, is key to preventing other kinds of corruption and conflicts of interest from occurring. “When you think about it, that’s really the root of transparency. If citizens can’t see into how their state does business and decision-making, that’s the real problem,” Barrett said.
States with the worst corruption risk scores lack powerful watchdog agencies. In many states, according to Barrett, the existing groups intended to ensure ethical action by elected officials lack real power. Virginia, which scores among the worst in terms of corruption risk, does not have a statewide ethics commission at all. Barrett suggests that the reason many states have such ineffectual watchdog organizations is that the elected officials they are supposed to be monitoring consistently vote in favor of cutting their funding and restricting their power.
Surprisingly, most of the states that received high marks have big governments with long histories of corruption and political machinery. Connecticut and California fit this description. New Jersey, where it seems former and current officials are indicted every year on ethics charges, received the highest grade in the country. Despite its colorful political past and present, New Jersey received a perfect score in areas such as lobbying disclosure and internal auditing. According to the report, the reason states with historical problems with corruption now have high accountability scores is precisely because of their former offenses. Those past problems led to strict enforcement measures that have kept politicians honest and information readily available.
Many of the states with the worst corruption scores have not had the same public issues with corruption that trigger reform. These states, according to the report, are among the most sparsely populated in the country. Reporters sent to conduct research for the State Integrity Investigation found these smaller populations lead to a relaxed, “everybody-knows-everybody” attitude. This environment leads to a lack of reporting by elected officials, a look-the-other-way approach regarding campaign finance and lobbying, and an underfunding (or nonexistence) of political oversight groups.
According to Barrett, states with stagnant political environments often encourage corruption. Governments with high levels of corruption tend to have a political party -- either the Democrats or Republicans -- in power for a long time. The states that have had a “machine” in place for a long time often tend to be the most corrupt. Machines tend to want to protect themselves.
These are America’s most corrupt states.
Georgia has the worst levels of corruption risk and lack of accountability of any state in the country. The state scored a D or worse in 12 of the 14 categories. The state’s biggest problem is the absence of a strong ethics enforcement agency. Republican governor Sonny Perdue managed to get an ethics bill through the legislature, but by the time it passed, his proposals to ban gifts to state workers and clearly define appropriate campaign spending had been stripped out. According to State Integrity reporter Jim Walls, while Georgia has provisions to prevent certain kinds of corruption in campaign finance and lobbying, the state is full of unaddressed loopholes and lax enforcement. “About 2,000 Georgia officials, including one in five sitting legislators, have failed to pay penalties for filing their disclosures late, or not at all,” he said.
2. South Dakota
South Dakota, which has the second-highest corruption risk score, has nine failing grades out of 14 categories, and three Ds. The state, which has among the lowest population density in the country, does not have “comprehensive state ethics laws,” an ethics commission or satisfactory transparency laws, as Denise Ross writes for the State Integrity Investigation. The state does little to require public officials, other than judges, to disclose their income and assets. State law features a loophole that makes it possible for individuals to make unlimited political donations. The state has made major improvements in its integrity by making many state records available online in recent years.
The state of Wyoming received a grade of F in nine of the 14 categories measured by the State Integrity Investigation. The state’s mechanism for self-governance is extremely poor. According to the report, there is no hotline, website or other method for state employees to report corruption. The state also has had the same political machine in place for some time. Wyoming’s two U.S. senators both have been Republicans since 1977. In 2006, the state legislature, which is primarily Republican, overrode a veto from the governor and ruled themselves exempt from open records laws. This means bills in draft can be kept secret, as can all communications with staff, until a bill is proposed.
Among Virginia’s ethical failings are poor government oversight, weak consumer protections and poor separation between politicians and big business. Overall, it receives nine Fs. One of the state’s greatest offenses is its exemption of its State Corporation Commission -- a regulatory agency that is responsible for overseeing all businesses, utilities, financial institutions and railroads in the state -- from its Freedom of Information Act. While Virginia has a General Assembly Conflict of Interests Act, the law has proven incredibly inefficient. Only one legislator has ever been prosecuted for violating it -- 26 years ago. The state is also weak on enforcing disclosure laws. In 2004, it was discovered that former Democratic Governor L. Douglas Wilder failed to file disclosure reports for his gubernatorial election campaign. Worst still, approximately $169,000 from his campaign account was unaccounted for. Consequently, L. Douglas Wilder, Jr., the former governor’s son and one-time campaign treasurer, pleaded guilty to two election law misdemeanors in 2007, resulting in a $1,000 fine and a suspended one-year sentence.