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Fuhgeddaboutit! NJ top state for fighting corruption

Despite a reputation for scandals, New Jersey leads all states in the fight against official corruption, according to a wide-ranging study released on Monday.

Five states received a "B" grade for accountability and transparency and eight got an "F" in the investigation by the nonprofit groups Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. No state got an "A."

The 18-month project is the most comprehensive study of state laws and practices that bolster openness and deter corruption, the investigators said.

New Jersey led the way with a grade of B-plus, followed by Connecticut, Washington, California and Nebraska. The eight failing states were North Dakota, Michigan, South Carolina, Maine, Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota and Georgia at the bottom. Nineteen states got a "C" and 18 received a "D."

Bad reputation
New Jersey has a colorful tradition of corruption in government, including a U.S. congressman taking a bribe from an FBI agent posing as a wealthy Arab sheik, a Jersey shore councilman caught on tape bragging to an undercover officer that he would never get caught because “I could smell a cop a mile away,” and a decade-long string of 150 state and local officials who were either convicted or pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges. The cases ranged from Motor Vehicle Commission employees selling fraudulent licenses to politicians peddling their influence for kickbacks.

Cases stemming from the 2009 roundup of 44 people in what was dubbed by the feds as “Operation Bid-Rig” are still working their way through the courts.

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But that history of corruption also led to strong reforms designed to prevent it in the future. Among them was a law prohibiting campaign contributions by most firms doing business with the state.

New Jersey ranks first in the integrity investigation for ethics enforcement, first for executive branch accountability and fourth for procurement practices.

“It's nice to be recognized for being ahead of the curve,” said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted many of the recent cases. “The governor is proud of the changes he's made and the resources he's made available to the public in terms of government transparency. Government operates and behaves better when it's open and transparent, and taxpayers feel informed and a part of the process when they can see how their money is spent, who is getting contracts and who's on the payroll and such.”

The result surprised Marc Mappen, author of the book "There’s More to New Jersey Than The Sopranos," who has covered corruption in the state.  "It’s nice to know we’re not as corrupt as people think," he told the Star-Ledger. "New Jersey has some spectacular examples of corruption in its history, but studies have painted a better picture."

According to Nathaniel Heller, managing director of Global Integrity, the finding may appear "counter-intuitive" but is a tribute to its corruption-fighting reforms

But, he added, "To be at the top of this list is sort of to win a beauty contest where not anybody is particularly pretty to start with."

Fewer watchdogs?
The study comes as struggling newspapers have slashed statehouse coverage or folded, weakening its traditional watchdog role of government, said Caitlin Ginley of the Center for Public Integrity, the project manager.

Almost every state had large gaps between laws on the books and their enforcement, she said.

The index grade measured the risk of corruption based on 330 indicators across 14 categories of government.

New York finished 36th with a "D" grade despite Governor Andrew Cuomo's steering ethics reform through the legislature.

"When the capital (Albany) is mentioned anywhere in New York state, there's usually a guffawing rejoinder followed by 'rats,' 'bums' or 'thieves,'" the report said.

Illinois, where former Governor Rod Blagojevich started a 14-year prison term for corruption on Thursday, got a "C" in a four-way tie for 10th with Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Hawaii.

States with well-known scandals paradoxically often have tough laws and enforcement that then bring them to light, a statement accompanying the study said.

"'Quiet' states may be at higher risk, with few means to (bring to the) surface corrupt practices," it said.

In Georgia, at the bottom of the list, there is a "gaping divide" between legal standards for accountability and normal practice, the report said.

Some 658 state workers accepted sports tickets, expensive meals and other gifts over a two-year period. It has been 12 years since the state last fined a vendor for failing to disclose such gifts, it said.

As a group, executives of Georgia insurance companies, public utilities and other regulated sectors have become the biggest single source of campaign money for regulators.

Methodology for the study was designed by Global Integrity, a Washington group that examines corruption worldwide.

The Center for Public Integrity oversaw the reporting and editing. Minneapolis-based Public Radio International, a transparency campaigner, handled dissemination by social media.

The study was largely funded by the Omidyar Network, an investment group founded by eBay Inc founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, and the Rita Allen Foundation of Princeton, New Jersey.

Reuters and NBC Philadelphia contributed to this report.

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