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State governments lack transparency and accountability to citizens, and remain at high risk for corruption, according to a new study of all 50 statehouses.
But the place where there is the least potential for corruption could surprise some people.
Only five states got rankings of B, led by a surprising recipient: New Jersey. It got a B-plus, with an overall score of 87 out of a possible 100.
Despite -- or perhaps because of -- recent corruption scandals, New Jersey got the top ranking because of steps it took to combat corruption, including tough ethics and anti-corruption laws it adopted in response.
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.
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.
“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.”
Not a single state received an A in the State Integrity Investigation ranking, a product of the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity.
“It's telling that no state received an overall grade of A,” said Caitlin Ginley, a staff writer for the Center for Public Integrity and a project manager on the study. “In every state, there's room to improve the ethics laws, the level of transparency on government proceedings, the disclosure of information, and -- most importantly -- the oversight of these laws.
“One of the major findings was that even when ethics laws are passed, they are difficult to enforce and lack meaningful consequences for violators.”
The report found that states with well-known scandals or histories of corruption often have the toughest laws and enforcement that bring them to light. Conversely, the report found, so-called “quiet” states may be at higher risk for corruption, with fewer means to bring corrupt practices to light.
Reporters in each state researched 330 corruption risk indicators across 14 government categories, including access to information, campaign finance, executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, budgeting, civil service management, procurement, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, pension fund management, ethics enforcement, insurance commissions, and redistricting.
Rounding out the top five states were: Connecticut (B, 86), Washington state (B-minus, 83), California (B-minus, 81) and Nebraska (B-minus, 80).
Nineteen states got grades of C, and 18 got a D. Eight states got an ‘F,’ with grades of 59 or lower: North Dakota, Michigan, South Carolina, Maine, Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota and Georgia.
Both Pennsylvania and Delaware earned C-minus marks.