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Thick as Thieves: Ethics in State Government

by Damon Eris, published

Over the last ten years, Americans’ trust in their government has plummeted to all time lows. Across a wide array of polls and surveys, fewer than 20% of us believe our government can be trusted to do the right thing. That skepticism is certainly justified. From 2001 to 2010, US Attorney’s Offices logged over 10,000 federal convictions against public officials across the country for myriad acts of corruption. And those were just the instances in which there was enough time, resources and evidence to build a strong case.

Clearly, there is a strong unethical and criminal element in the Republican-Democrat party system and political class. This much is even apparent from their own campaign slogans, in which it has become commonplace to call for integrity, accountability and transparency in government. A new study from a non-partisan watchdog group called the State Integrity Investigation finds that there is not a single state in which the government lives up to even these mundane pretensions.

“State officials make lofty promises when it comes to ethics in government. They tout the transparency of legislative processes, accessibility of records, and the openness of public meetings. But these efforts often fall short of providing any real transparency or legitimate hope of rooting out corruption,” writes Caitlin Ginley in a presentation of the study’s findings.

The investigation and report is the result of a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and the Global Integrity advocacy organization. The project created what it calls a “State Integrity Index,” measuring all fifty states against 330 “corruption risk indicators,” and assessing their susceptibility to public corruption.

The 330 indicators are broken down into fourteen different categories, from legislative, executive and judicial accountability, to the public accessibility of information, lobbying disclosure laws, ethics enforcement, procurement practices, and even redistricting methods. The findings have now been published in a “Corruption Risk Report Card” issued for all fifty states. There are no “A” students in the Union.

New Jersey’s State Senate Majority Leader Lorretta Weinberg was apparently shocked to learn her state came out at the top of the list with a B+ rating. “I’m still in shock,” she told reporters with the investigation team. “If we’re number one, I feel bad for the rest of the states,” she said. Three of Weinberg’s colleagues in the State Senate have been sent to prison for their crimes.

According to the judgment of the state integrity research team, however, such convictions demonstrate that New Jersey has strong ethics and corruption laws on the books and that they are enforced.

“Some states lack the laws that insure government accountability. In others, violations go undetected due to negligent or willful enforcement failures,” states a report on New Jersey’s first place finish at the organization’s website.

Overall, the evaluation team handed out B level ratings to five states, while 19 received C level grades, 18 received D’s and 8 were rated to be failures. See how your state fared at the State Integrity website.