State Integrity Investigation

Keeping Government Honest

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Why corruption matters in U.S. states

In late 2009 I was catching up at a Starbucks with Bill Buzenberg, the Executive Director at the Center for Public Integrity. I told Bill about some of the interesting research Global Integrity was doing at the municipal, state, regional, and provincial level in a number of countries. But I was frustrated, I said, by the lack of good data here in the United States about how state governments were actually set up when it came to anti-corruption enforcement and deterrence. It was easier for Global Integrity to find teams of qualified researchers in, say, Peru to assess region-level transparency and governance than it was to put together a similar effort in the U.S. states.

I worried that much of the attention in the U.S. at the state level had become too siloed and focused on particular pet rock issue areas: freedom of information, money in politics, open data, and state budgets to name a few. Was anyone looking at the whole picture? Did we have any idea which states were “hardwired to fail” when it came to corruption and governance?

“No,” Bill said. “But let’s fix that.” And thus the State Integrity Investigation was born.

Today marks an important milestone with respect to the pioneering State Integrity Investigation: we are making pre-publication data — all 16,500 data points — available to the public to comment on, raise questions about, and share more than a month before the “official” publication of the project results.

Why did the project partners decide to open ourselves up to this level of scrutiny? It might be helpful to review the history of how this incredible effort came to be.

Global Integrity, one of the three core partners of the State Integrity Investigation, has spent the better part of a decade tracking governance and corruption trends globally, including in North America. We’ve helped to pioneer some of the more innovative ways of assessing corruption risks and anti-corruption mechanisms at the national and sub-national levels in more than 120 countries by combining journalistic reporting with social science data gathering.

Along the way, we built some technology to help us gather and publish that information more efficiently, which explains how a staff of less than 15 spread across two continents has published more than 10 million words of text and more than 100,000 data points without going absolutely crazy. Those efforts have led to real change in a number of countries by providing both government and non-governmental organizations with solid information that can be used for evidence-based policymaking.

Early on in the project brainstorming, we made several important decisions that are already impacting the public uptake of this project:

  • We wanted to invest many months into talking to the country’s leading experts and advocates focused on state government before developing our methodology. Seventy-five interviews later we had the project’s 330 Integrity Indicators.
  • We wanted to work with the best and brightest experts we could find in each state to gather those data, and that meant recruiting leading statehouse reporters in every state.
  • We wanted to open the research and reporting process up to the public to ensure our results were as balanced and as accurate as possible. We made early decisions to publish the names of all of the lead reporters in each state, to find engaged and informed citizens to help review the draft data, and to (today) make pre-publication data available for public feedback before the official project launch. Many of those decisions were novel for Global Integrity, and we are anxiously awaiting early feedback to see whether some of this project’s experimental techniques can be applied to other efforts.

After all of the hard work by the reporters, project managers, editors, and online community team, a simple reality remains truer than ever: corruption matters in the states because it impacts people’s lives. Your state budgets are broken in part because governments have given too many tax breaks to special interests that fund politicians’ campaigns. Your roads are crumbling because tenders for infrastructure projects often go to politically connected companies, not those with the most competitive pricing or highest quality. Your elected leaders often operate with impunity because of broken information request systems, gutted state ethics commissions, and patronage controlled civil services.

For all of the attention paid in the past fifteen years to the crisis in governance at the national level in the United States — from Lincoln Bedroom scandals to Enron to McCain-Feingold, Citizens United, and Super PACs — we still struggle to understand whether things are better or worse at the state level. That’s what we hope this project will answer.

See your state’s corruption risk report card and email it your legislators. Together, we can inspire reform.

— Nathaniel Heller is the Executive Director of Global Integrity.

Filed under corruption reform legislation open government Transparency global integrity iWatch center for public integrity public radio international pri

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Fines and financing: An attempt at campaign finance accountability in South Dakota

South Dakota Representative Jon Hansen thinks transparent campaign financing is worth more than $50 a day. That’s the fine that the state assesses campaigns for late reports, with a maximum total penalty of $3,000.

But Hansen (R-Dell Rapids) doesn’t like that wealthy campaigns can just put off filing a report until they see fit — or, in some cases, until after a nomination or election.

“In South Dakota our filing deadlines, as they are, are very close to an actual election,” Hansen said. “And that makes sense on one level, because you want to be able to see as many contributors to a candidate’s campaign as possible. But it does make it easy to say, ‘Oops, I forgot to file,’ and just wait until after an election to file a report.”

Hansen (pictured, right) thinks it’s critical that citizens are given a chance to review who is funding a campaign, and how a candidate is spending those funds. In the past, candidates have chosen to pay down fines in order to avoid filing, or simply not paid at all: In some cases, the secretary of state’s office has been forced to hire collections agencies to get candidates to pay fines they owe.

To try and remedy what Hansen views is an inadequate penalty for lax accounting, he proposed HB 1112, a bill that would disqualify potential candidates who have failed to file a campaign finance report. Under the proposal, the secretary of state’s office would not certify a candidate who had an outstanding report due. Last week, Hansen’s bill passed through the House State Affairs Committee — “one of the most difficult committees to get a bill out of,” he said — by a vote of 9-4, which the freshman representative saw as a good sign that the bill will become law.

After some discussion of the measure, Hansen agreed to add an amendment that would exempt accounting errors which are discovered after the fact, saying that the bill was not meant to create a “gotcha situation.” Instead, it was an attempt to force greater responsibility from political candidates and their campaign bank accounts.

“There’s a big movement — there’s always been a large movement to increase the openness in government,” Hansen said. “Any time you can do that, you’ll create more public trust.”

Unfortunately, Hansen was badly outnumbered by legislative colleagues who like things the way they are: On Monday, the South Dakota House of Representatives voted down the bill, 65-4. After the bill was voted down, Hansen would not give up on the proposal, saying he would rework the bill and enter it again during the next session.


Filed under south dakota corruptionrisk jon hansen campaign finance usa 2012 politics reform state affairs state government

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Redistricting: A shell game nobody wins?

Earlier this month, ProPublica released a music video to help explain the decision making process and the tactics applied during state redistricting.

In the style of the “Schoolhouse Rock!” videos, ProPublica’s Youtube production uses animation and music to make a dry subject into entertainment. But, while its tone is light, at its core the video reveals serious potential for corruption and abuses of power during the redistricting process.

The policy of redrawing a state’s district map every 10 years is meant to equalize voter balance shifts due to relocation; redistricting also creates great potential for corrupt political practices that undermine the spirit of honest redistricting in favor of partisan gain.

With that in mind, it’s probably no mistake that some district maps take on very interesting shapes.

How does your state’s district map look? Find out and post a pic or a link to it along with your comments below.

To find out more about whose money influences redistricting, read this story from ProPublica, which has been taking on the redistricting process from different angles in a series of investigatives stories — and one very informative video.

Filed under corruption redistricting scandal reform

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Whistleblowers: Heroic in movies, important in real life

In movies, the whistleblower is often a heroic figure.

Marlon Brando (pictured, right) won an Oscar for “On the Waterfront,”  portraying a lowly dockworker who agrees to testify against his mob boss employers. In “All the President’s Men” Hal Holbrook furthered the legend as the Watergate scandal’s “Deep Throat,” later revealed to be former FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt.

Then there’s the real world. Whistleblowing is usually a lot less glamorous. Though their value in stopping dishonest and sometimes criminal abuses of power is unquestioned, not every state makes it easy to blow the whistle.

The transparency advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) maintains a database that keeps track of state whistleblower laws. In its most recent report on whistleblowing protections, PEER found that only two states, California and Tennessee, scored 70 points or higher, out of 100 possible on PEER’s scale. At the other end of the spectrum, Alabama, with a rating of 38, Georgia, Indiana (both rated 37) and South Dakota (22) all earned less than 40 points. 

The Idaho Tax Commission, a relatively small agency, was the subject of two public scandals in less than three years. The first came to light because of a whistleblower; the second scandal only came to light because of a lawsuit stemming from the first.

In the spring of 2008, Idaho Tax Commission auditor Stan Howland went public with a report that alleged “illegal audit settlements.” In his report, Howland wrote that large corporations, including out-of-state companies, had been given the option of settling with the state on back-taxes. In an interview with Boise Weekly, Howland said these “compromise and close” deals had grown “out of control,” and were costly to the state and taxpayers.

Five other auditors went public with their own concerns, supporting Howland’s report. The Idaho Attorney General’s Office conducted an investigation and determined that no laws had been broken, which left legislators questioning whether the law itself might be the problem.

When the tax commission was sued over its tax settlement practice, the Idaho Attorney General’s Office gathered a number of emails from commissioners and staffers. The Associated Press filed an open records request for those emails and what it found was enough to unearth the second scandal.

Royce Chigbrow, appointed as a tax commissioner in 2007, was hand-selected by longtime friend, Gov. Butch Otter.  Chigbrow had previously served as a campaign treasurer for Otter (pictured, right).

In the emails provided to the AP, tax commission employees expressed concern over Chigbrow’s favoritism toward a businessman and political ally. According to the AP’s report, Chigbrow called a tax commission employee to his office, where the employee was to meet with Chigbrow’s friend and give details on a tax collection action against a private company.

That allegation, and one, also discovered in internal emails, that Chigbrow had favored a company with ties to his son, led to Chigbrow’s resignation in January. Ultimately, however, it was decided he’d face no criminal charged.

Though tax commission employees voiced concerns and pushed back against Chigbrow’s unethical behavior, they were unable to stop him until the Associated Press discovered their concerns in emails and revealed his actions.

Idaho ranks tied for 20th place in whistleblower protection laws, according to PEER, which credited the state with protection for reporting violations of law and wastes of public money. But Idaho is faulted for not protecting disclosure of “gross mismanagement” or “abuse of authority.”

The protections currently on the books in Idaho don’t always prompt someone to immediate action. Stan Howland, the auditor whose report brought increased attention to the commission, had been concerned for 16 years before he blew the whistle.

“When it got bad, I started fighting it internally,” Howland told Boise Weekly. “I continued to fight internally up until a couple months ago when I realized I had to go public.”


Filed under corruption whistleblowing scandal politics reform legislation idaho

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Lobbyist gift-giving is a year-round risk to state government integrity

With Christmas just around the corner, Americans are getting into the gift-giving mood. Most  of us only have a few occasions every year  when we can expect to receive gifts. But for politicians, public officials and lobbyists, gift-giving is a year-round practice, and one that often treads close to an ethics violation.

For members of state government , gifts often come in the form of a trip bought and paid for by a lobbyist or advocacy group.  Those gifts can go straight to the public official, but on occasion, they go to an official’s family member instead.

For example, Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe,  a Democrat now in his second term , revealed in his 2009 disclosure report that his wife Ginger had received round-trip airfare from Little Rock to St. Louis, valued at $250. Ginger Beebe’s trip was paid for by Clark Mason, a Little Rock-based attorney.  The reason for Beebe’s trip is not explained in the disclosure form. In 2010, when two Arkansas judges recused themselves from hearing a lawsuit, Governor Beebe named two lawyers to take their place; one of them was Clark Mason.

That same year, Ginger Beebe accompanied Mike (pictured, right) on an eight-day economic development trip  to Europe. The tab for Ginger Beebe’s trip, which cost $3,710 total, was paid for by the Arkansas Economic Development Program.

Each state enforces varying levels of regulation and disclosure of gifts. The most extreme form of regulation is the “no cup of coffee” rule, which exists in a handful of states and bars state officials from accepting any gift – including a single cup of coffee – from a lobbyist, or a person who employs lobbyists. In the run-up to last week’s gubernatorial elections in Kentucky, all three major candidates, including the incumbent governor and eventual winner Steve Beshear, said they would support a “no cup of coffee” law.

John Schaff, counsel to the Kentucky Ethics Commission, said Kentucky already has relatively strict laws governing gift disclosure, thanks to a scandal in the early 1990s.

“Lobbyists were leaving their credit cards at local restaurants and telling legislators, ‘Just charge it to me,’” Schaff said.

Under Kentucky’s current rules, legislators are barred from receiving any non-food gifts from lobbyists, and lobbyists are required to make full disclosure of food and drink gifts. With those rules in place, Schaff says legislators are discouraged from accepting much of anything, because “no legislator wants to be seen as having a meal with a lobbyist.”

According to Schaff, the ethics commission has made the “no cup of coffee” recommendation to the legislature for several years running. Recalling the 1990s scandal that led to the  Kentucky’s present laws, he said it usually takes a major embarrassment to force a change in state ethics.

“Typically,” Schaff said, “the only way you get real change in ethics laws is when you have a scandal of some sort.”


Filed under corruption scandal campaign finance lobbyist super pac scandal politics reform Arkansas ethics