Monday, July 04, 2005

Michael: Surprise! Arizona's Not Corrupt, but is America?

A report on State corruption by the Corporate Crime Reporter (CCR) (link is PDF file) indicates that Arizona is ranked 43rd in the nation in terms of public corruption. Only seven states have more public rectitude than Arizona; Minnesota, Utah, Colorado, Iowa, N. Hampshire. Oregon, and Nebraska.

Of course, everyone wants the dish, not just the dessert. The most corrupt states probably won't be completely surprising. They are; Mississippi, North Dakota, Louisiana, Alaska, Illinois, Montana, S. Dakota, Kentucky, Florida, and New York, in that order. Some of the less populous states on the list surprised me; I wouldn't have expected enough opportunity for corruption in Montana or South Dakota for those state to hit the top ten, especially given that Nebraska (another big, sparsely populated, conservative plains state) is ranked the least corrupt state in the country.

One misleading thing about the study is that the District of Columbia was not included. If it had been, it would have been far and away the most corrupt political entity in the country, if only because it is the seat of the Federal Government, which was the target of 453 successful public corruption prosecutions over the last decade. Mississippi, with a corruption rate of 7.48, ranked as the most corrupt state. DC's score would be 79.33.

How are these rankings generated you might ask? The Department of Justice reported public corruption prosecutions per 100K capita used to generate the rankings. Thus the statisics rely on certain assumptions and facts. Fact 1: some 80% of public corruption prosecutions are brought by federal prosecutors. I don't know if that's due to an orientation to 'street' crime in county and state departments, or if federal prosecutors have more political independence and resources. Fact 2: the reliance on federal prosecution figures means that the the rankings could be wildly off if a federal district has a prosecutor who lacks the courage and political will to bring cases against politically powerful figures in her district.

An interesting contrast with these rankings is found in a similar report on public corruption by the Better Government Association (BGA) which ranked states based upon the laws in place in each state: freedom of information laws, whistleblower protection, campaign finance laws, gift/trip/honoraria laws, and conflict of interest laws. The resulting ranking bore little resemblence to that of the CCR.

Perhaps there isn't a strict correlation between good laws on the books and a culture of public integrity. Or perhaps those states which have strong laws tend to get more prosecutions, thus more convictions and a higher ranking under CCR's methodology. For instance, Kentucky was rated 4th highest for integrity in the BGA assessment, yet was in the top ten in CCR ranking of most corrupt states. But the pattern is not so easy to discern. Only one of BGA's best 5 was even among the 50% least corrupt states of CCR's conviction-based ranking. And 2 of BGA's worst 5 were likewise among CCR's 50% least corrupt states.

So what is the real reason some states are more corrupt that others if it is not solely their laws? CCR suggests the answer can be found in a state's political economy; the mores and values of reporters, citizen's groups, prosecutors, judges, religious leaders, and yes, politicians, who are willing to speak out against corruption, and bird dog bad behavior rather than tolerate it. Some state cultures are weak and corrupt, some are strong.

So what does it teach public figures and our coming generations when we allow a President to lie us into a war, to lie about the effect of massive tax cuts on government revenues, to lie about his military service record, to award massively bloated 'no bid' contracts to corporate cronies, to 'lose' 8 billion dollars in Iraq, to turn the Interior Department into a lobbying firm for extractive industries, to call massive corporate giveaways in possibly the biggest hog ever to waddle out of the Congress an 'energy strategy', to disband and defang ethics committees rather than allow them do their jobs, even to break the law with impunity to reward political allies and punish enemies? It teaches that corruption is now the standard, and virtue is the abberation. Getting away with it is what matters, not what is 'right' or 'legal'. What quaint notions.

Perhaps most telling is how the worlds' business perceives the United States' level of political corruption. You would think that we would be the most admired and respected; right at the top of any ranking of public integrity. We are the world's largest market, the favored destination for foreign investment, and the leader in promoting the rule of law around the world to foster a secure and uncorruptable business enviroment.

And you'd be wrong. We don't even make the top 10 - barely the top 20. According to Transparency International, which conducts an annual survey of business people's perception of corruption, we came in 18th; down from 16th since Bush took office.

Quaint notions or not, legality, rectitude, and simple integrity have been the bulwark of (most of) the American way since we took the mantle of leadership in the world following WWII. We dispose of those values in our public and commercial lives at our peril.

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