Some Surprises, But No Heroes In State Corruption Analysis

Some Surprises, But No Heroes In State Corruption Analysis

Government accountability efforts lack "teeth" says report

Not a single state out of fifty receives an 'A' when it comes to government, according to a five month-long study on state-level government accountability and corruption released today. Orchestrated in partnership by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International, the data-driven analysis looked at transparency, accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms in all 50 states.

The "depressing bottom line that emerges" from the State Integrity Investigation, according to its authors, is that despite efforts towards 'openness' and 'transparency,' state efforts often fall short of providing any real transparency or legitimate hope of rooting out government corruption.

"Not a single state -- not one -- earned an A grade from the months-long probe," reads the report. "Only five states earned a B grade: New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington, California and Nebraska. Nineteen states got C's and 18 received D's. Eight states earned failing grades of 59 or below: [...] Michigan, North Dakota, South Carolina, Maine, Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota and Georgia."

What accounts for the poor grades? "Across the board," says the report, "State ethics, open records and disclosure laws lack one key feature: teeth."

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The report: Grading the nation: How accountable is your state?

The tales are sadly familiar to even the most casual observer of state politics.

In Georgia, more than 650 government employees accepted gifts from vendors doing business with the state in 2007 and 2008, clearly violating state ethics law. The last time the state issued a penalty on a vendor was 1999.

A North Carolina legislator sponsored and voted on a bill to loosen regulations on billboard construction, even though he co-owned five billboards in the state. When the ethics commission reviewed the case, it found no conflict; after all, the panel reasoned, the legislation would benefit all billboard owners in the state -- not just the lawmaker who pushed for the bill.

Tennessee established its ethics commission six years ago, but has yet to issue a single ethics penalty. It's almost impossible to know whether the oversight is effectively working, because complaints are not made available to the public.

A West Virginia governor borrowed a car from his local dealership to take it for a "test drive." He kept the car for four years, during which the dealership won millions in state contracts.

When representatives of a biotech company took Montana legislators out to dinner, they neither registered as lobbyists nor reported the fact that they picked up the bill. They didn't have to -- the law only requires registration upon spending $2,400 during a legislative session. And in Maine, one state senator did not disclose $98 million in state contracts that went to an organization for which he served as executive director. The lack of disclosure was not an oversight; due to a loophole in state law, he was under no obligation to do so.

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From Study: 8 states get 'F' on corruption

The Garden State - well known for its reputation for widespread corruption - took the surprising first-place spot with a B+ score of 87 points, thanks to the steps its statehouse has taken to enforce anti-corruption laws.

"New Jersey's strong points are clear: extensive financial disclosure requirements for the governor, a transparently-run pension fund, and an aggressive ethics enforcement agency," the investigation said. "The state also boasts some of the nation's toughest anti-pay-to-play laws for contractors."

Illinois, easily considered one of the most "corrupt" states in the nation (and deemed so in a recent University of Illinois study), is a case and point of how a "most corrupt" label can actually be misleading, the study pointed out.

"A hefty number of prosecutions may actually suggest the system is working -- corrupt behavior is rooted out and perpetrators are punished," it said. "States with relatively low numbers of convictions are not necessarily more accountable, but perhaps less equipped to sniff out malfeasance and go after the bad guys."

Illinois was ranked an impressive 10th place, receiving a C grade of 74 points, by the State Integrity Investigation.


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