A recent study found that 47 state governments scored a D or lower in providing transparency and accountability while repeatedly engaging in public corruption. The only three states that scored higher than a D each received a C for their slightly improved attempts at overall integrity.
According to the Center of Public Integrity and Global Integrity, eleven states flunked their 2015 State Integrity Investigation. Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Wyoming failed the integrity test because their state governments lack systems to prevent and expose corruption.
Coming in dead last, Michigan received an F in 10 of the 13 categories of government operations examined. While doubling political contribution limits and overriding Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s decision to end dark money, Michigan legislators are also allowed to accept nominal gifts but are not required to report the legalized bribes. Under the weak disclosure rules, it is the lobbyist’s duty to report these gifts, not the lawmaker.
With the state Ethics Board serving as a toothless agency that does not conduct investigations, cronyism and favoritism have essentially become accepted practices in the Legislature, the judiciary, and the governor’s office. After the Legislature and governor’s office exempted themselves from Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, requests for public records have repeatedly been denied. Although State Sen. Steve Bieda has introduced bills since 2003 seeking mandates for personal asset disclosures, campaign finance transparency and the reporting of all gifts, Bieda has never come close to succeeding.
Since 2012, sixteen New York lawmakers have left office due to ethical or criminal issues, including former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Majority Leader Dean Skelos. This summer, former FBI agent and New York Congressman, Michael Grimm, was sentenced to eight months in prison after pleading guilty to tax fraud. In connection with his guilty plea, Grimm also admitted to exploiting immigrant workers, underreporting wages, and repeatedly lying under oath.
In the last three years, at least 12 states have seen their legislative leaders or top cabinet-level officials charged, convicted, or resign as a result of ethics or corruption-related scandal. At least five House or Assembly leaders have also fallen.
In 2013, a lobbyist spent $2,250 to host a state senator and his wife at the annual Governors Cup charity golf tournament even though Idaho places a $50 cap on gifts. Although C.A. “Skip” Smyser reported spending $1,250 and $1,000 on State Sen. Jim Guthrie and his wife Barbara at the Governors Cup, the $50 cap does not apply to lobbyists as long as the money is not spent “in return for action” on a particular bill. Idaho also has no ethics commission.
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Hamstrung by inadequate resources, Delaware’s Public Integrity Commission can only afford to pay two full-time employees to oversee the state’s lobbying and ethics laws. In a 2013 report, a special state prosecutor found that the agency was unable “to undertake any serious inquiry or investigation into potential wrongdoing.”
In Missouri, lobbyists have spent $1.85 million on gifts to state officials in the 24 months through last December. Since November 2012, at least 11 legislators have registered as lobbyists within a year after leaving office or announced resignations to become lobbyists. Instead of waiting for his term to end, Steven Tilley, who was House speaker in 2012, resigned nearly five months before the end of his term and eventually took on more than 20 clients, including Tesla Motors and Anheuser-Busch.
“It’s very, very difficult for legislatures to focus on these things and improve them because they don’t want these laws, they don’t want to enforce them and they don’t want to fund people enforcing them,” said former president of the Center for Governmental Studies Robert Stern.
Published on Monday, the report found that states scored the worst at handling public access to information. Although Ohio, South Carolina, and Washington all provided copies of their databases of breath-alcohol test results for free, the Massachusetts State Police charged an attorney $2.7 million for its records. In another incident, the Massachusetts State Police charged a journalist $130,000 to view prison drug seizure reports. The reporter, George LeVines, declined their offer.
“I wouldn’t have ever expected getting that just scot-free, that does cost money,” LeVines said. But $130,000? “It’s insane.”
At least 36 states have voted on bills that may present a conflict of interest. In Missouri, Rep. Dan Shaul introduced a bill this year to prohibit cities from banning plastic bags in grocery stores. In a direct conflict of interest, Shaul is also state director of the Missouri Grocers Association, who lobbied to keep plastic bags in their stores.
Based on 245 questions concerning transparency and accountability, the investigation included assessments of 13 categories, including public access to information, political financing, electoral oversight, executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, state budget processes, state civil service management, procurement, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, state pension fund management, and ethics enforcement agencies.
Although Alaska came in first place, the state only received a C grade. Excelling in oversight of lobbyists, easily accessible political finance data, and strict ethics rules governing the executive and legislative branches, Alaska scored the highest in the nation for judicial accountability.
Since its first assessment in 2012, the State Integrity Investigation has found that overall scores have become notably worse in the last three years. Due to a glaring lack of accountability, transparency, and ethics oversight, state governments are becoming more corrupt while reaping the benefits of dark money and legalized bribes from lobbyists. By denying the public access to information, politicians and law enforcement agencies will continue operating in the shadows without a shred of integrity.