Voters and their state's ethical fitness

An extensive probe of 'corruption risk indicators' by a team of journalists shows that most of the 50 states don't reflect voter demands for integrity in official conduct.

Ed Andrieski/AP Photo
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, center, walks with attorneys March 15 as he arrives at a federal prison in Littleton, Colo., where he began serving a 14-year sentence for corruption.

It’s an odd disconnect. In choosing their elected leaders, Americans care most about integrity – even more so than leadership abilities or stands on issues. And yet, according to a new grading of all 50 states on the integrity of their government – ‘A’ to ‘F’ – voters aren’t exactly getting what they want.

The grades are the result of an extensive probe of each state’s ethics laws and susceptibility to corruption by a team of reporters. The probe was put together by the Center for Public Integrity and supported by Public Radio International and Global Integrity.

More than half the states were found to be below average: 18 got a ‘D’ and 8 chalked up an ‘F’ while 19 received a ‘C’.

Only five states earned a ‘B’.

And none deserved an ‘A’.

The survey, known as the State Integrity Investigation, used 330 “corruption risk indicators” to gauge each state’s transparency and accountability in official affairs, including how well it implements anti-corruption rules and laws.

The best state? Surprisingly, New Jersey, despite its Tony Soprano reputation.

After a spate of scandals in the last decade, the state passed strong ethics laws and put in place a credible enforcement mechanism. Georgia ranks last despite many antigraft laws, in large part because “money finds a way to flow around those laws,” said one researcher.

What stands out in the survey is the uneven patchwork of antigraft measures that work in many states, such as Connecticut’s public financing of campaigns or Louisiana’s cap on lobbyist spending, but don’t seem to catch on in other states.

This points to the need for more citizen activism – not just in persuading lawmakers on the need for clean-government reforms but also in electing state leaders who better represent the moral demands of the people.

The struggle against corruption or other abuses of power is best fought before it happens. Prevention is less costly than after-the-fact prosecution and penalties.

As the late political and social scientist James Q. Wilson pointed out in his best book, “The Moral Sense,” a democracy depends on the moral health of its people.

“Mankind’s moral sense is not a strong beacon light,” he wrote, but “rather, a small candle flame ... flickering and sputtering in the strong winds of power and passion, greed and ideology.” When “brought close to the heart and cupped in one’s hands, it dispels the darkness and warms the soul.”

No manner of ethics laws or codes of conduct can create effective and clean government without voters asserting their desire for honesty, openness, accountability, and other values of integrity. Enron had one of the best ethical codes in the world, but it fell apart because of its culture of malfeasance and lack of values.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” wrote James Madison. “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

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