America’s Most Corrupt States

Earlier this week, the Center for Public Integrity released a report detailing the risk of corruption and lack of accountability in all 50 states. 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.

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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 reports on government from 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,” Barret 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.

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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.

8. Michigan > Overall grade: F (58%) > Public access to information: D > Legislative accountability: F > Political financing: F > Ethics enforcement agencies: F

Michigan received a grade of F in 10 of the 14 categories measured, including accountability in all three branches of government as well as in redistricting, lobbying and political financing. Michigan is one of just three states that still lacks financial disclosure rules for lawmakers and governors. According to Chris Andrews, author of the State Integrity Investigation report on Michigan, the state does not fall prey to much of the widespread corruption that has been seen in Detroit. The report’s findings indicate, however, that the state has no system in place to monitor state lobbying, which is among the most corrupt in the country. This, according to Andrews, “has allowed wealthy individuals and powerful PACs to funnel huge amounts of money into campaigns.” The state also has a “gift loophole” for lobbyists, which allows gifts from interested parties to elected officials like sports tickets or meals.

7. North Dakota > Overall grade: F (58%) > Public access to information: C > Legislative accountability: F > Political financing: F > Ethics enforcement agencies: F

North Dakota got an F in eight of the 14 categories, including redistricting, ethics enforcement agencies, lobbying disclosure and political financing. According to the report, these problems with accountability can lead to conflicts of interest. For example, there are no laws in place preventing civil servants from entering any part of the private sector after leaving office. The state has had a Republican governor in place since Ed Shafer took office in December, 1992. With Republicans holding 75% of legislature seats and philosophically opposing more regulation, as State Integrity Investigation reporter Terry Finneman explains, they tend to “protect the machine.” Last year, they overwhelmingly voted against a bill to create an ethics commission.

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6. South Carolina > Overall grade: F (57%) > Public access to information: F > Legislative accountability: F > Political financing: D- > Ethics enforcement agencies: F

South Carolina received nine failing grades in areas including executive, judicial and legislative accountability. State Integrity Investigation notes that the budget of South Carolina’s State Ethics Commission has been cut a total of six times in the past three years. In September 2010, all regulations on limiting contributions to political parties were eliminated. Additionally, many contributors to individual candidates abuse loopholes to avoid limitations on donations. There is also an antagonistic relationship between office-holding politicians and the press. Specifically, the report says, Governor Nikki Haley’s administration has used a policy of deleting important emails.

5. Maine > Overall grade: F (56%) > Public access to information: F > Legislative accountability: F > Political financing: D+ > Ethics enforcement agencies: F

Maine received F grades in nine of the 14 measured categories, including legislative accountability, lobbying disclosure and public access to information. The State Integrity Investigation identifies the existence of possible conflicts of interest and corruption. According to the report, there is no law in place, for example, to force Democratic State Senator Jim Brannigan to disclose that the organization that he was a director of received $98 million in Maine government contracts. On February 1, Republican State Representative David Burns was arrested for violating campaign finance laws such as falsifying records and misusing funds.

4. Virginia > Overall grade: F (55%) > Public access to information: F > Legislative accountability: F > Political financing: F > Ethics enforcement agencies: F

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.

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3. Wyoming > Overall grade: F (52%) > Public access to information: F > Legislative accountability: D- > Political financing: F > Ethics enforcement agencies: F

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.

2. South Dakota > Overall grade: (50%) > Public access to information: D+ > Legislative accountability: F > Political financing: F > Ethics enforcement agencies: F

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.

1. Georgia > Overall grade: F (49%) > Public access to information: F > Legislative accountability: F > Political financing: F > Ethics enforcement agencies: F

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.”