Columnist: Anti-Corruption Effort Targets All the States

March 26, 2012
by Neal Peirce

For imprisoned governors, Illinois excels: Last Thursday, Rod Blagojevich, following in the footsteps of his predecessors George Ryan, Dan Walker and Otto Kerner, began his penitentiary time on serious corruption charges.

But now there is more heartening news. A State Integrity Investigation, 18 months in the making, was released last week, covering all 50 states - easily the most thorough look at ethics laws and susceptibility to corruption ever focused on America's state governments.

Teams of freelance journalists - at least one in each state - did the on-the-ground reporting. They didn't just look for some glaring abuse. Rather, they checked each state's anti-corruption and transparency safeguards on 330 "corruption risk indicators," ranging from accountability of governors, legislators and judges to lobbying disclosure. 

What they found were open-records laws riddled with exceptions - scores of legislators suddenly becoming lobbyists, lawmakers voting on measures they'd benefit from directly and near-toothless disclosure laws. 

"The depth and breadth of the loopholes we discovered in laws was stunning," says Gordon Witkin of the Center for Public Integrity, which sponsored the project along with Public Radio International and Global Integrity.

They tapped a generous budget for extensive research and fact-checking - $1.5 million from the Omidyar Network and the Rita Allen Foundation. Critics will likely have a hard time questioning the project's depth and precision. And, with luck, reformers in each state will now be armed with powerful evidence to force tighter ethics rules. 

The project assigned scores (A to F) on a state's anti-corruption laws and rules (rather than a tally of actual scandals). Not a single state qualified for an A rating and only five states received a B. Each state's ranking, from ethics enforcement to political financing, is featured on the project's website - www.stateintegrity.org.

There's a big anomaly in the rankings. The five states with the best (B) rankings start with New Jersey, notorious for its wave of corrupt practices in recent years. How come? In response, its legislature has recently passed some of the nation's severest ethics and anti-corruption laws.

Others rating a B were Connecticut, Washington, California and Nebraska. But check the tough investigative news reports shown on the site from reporters in those states, and imperfections crop up instantly - for example, "At least 42 Connecticut state employees took part in hurricane aid fraud." Or, "Arnold Schwarzenegger fined for campaign finance violations." 

Eight states landed Fs, again with some surprises: North Dakota, South Dakota, Michigan, South Carolina, Maine, Virginia, Wyoming and Georgia. 

You may well ask: Michigan, low on ethics? Well, yes, it's one of three states (with Vermont and Idaho) that have no public disclosure laws. Minnesota, despite its squeaky-clean reputation, got only a D-plus, scoring in the cellar on ethics enforcement and lobbying (lobbyists, for example, are not required to disclose which lawmakers they are lobbying or what bills they are lobbying for or against).

Plus low-population states such as Maine, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska and the Dakotas may get low scores because of a "we-all-know-each-other" self-policing ethic.

But it is not the precise scores but the new watchdog standards that the study establishes. It's important because corruption matters. As Nathaniel Heller of Global Integrity notes: "Corruption impacts people's lives." State budgets serving legitimate needs from education to public safety are depleted when special interests get tax breaks while funding politicians' campaigns. Elected leaders often act with impunity because of broken information-request systems, gutted state ethics commissions and patronage-controlled civil services. 

The new accountability project's follow-through promises to be imaginative. Public Radio International, for example, will work with its 880 partner stations to inspire people to fight corruption in their own states through crowdsourcing and social media. In today's new media world, says PRI's Michael Skoler, "people, not simply reporters, can and must be watchdogs for honest government."

And there's no American monopoly on inventive anti-corruption techniques - many have been developed, proved "tried and true," in countries ranging from the Philippines to Bangladesh to India, says Heller. Examples include citizen monitoring of local governments and specific ways to track public expenditures to detect waste. 

So Global Integrity plans, in the near future, to bring teams from around the world to sit down and confer with interested ethics commissions and others in U.S. states.

Roots of the state project go back to a 2009 Starbucks conversation between Heller and Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity. Heller remarked that it was easier to find teams of qualified anti-corruption researchers in Peru than in the United States. Did Buzenberg know if anyone was checking which U.S. states are "hardwired to fail" on corruption issues?

The answer was "No - but let's fix that." And the State Integrity Investigation was born.

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

© 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.