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Praise for our state corruption risk index

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It has been gratifying to read newspaper editorials in the last week giving credit to The Center for Public Integrity’s comprehensive state corruption risk index, known as the State Integrity Investigation. The 50-state investigation was released in the spring of 2012 with partners Global Integrity and Public Radio International.

The editorials, in the Washington Post and USA Today, have lavished praise on  the Center’s work, while criticizing the mostly non-existent ethics laws in the state of Virginia. As the Post and others have reported, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his family accepted more than $150,000 in gifts, loans and cash from a friend and businessman who was also seeking favors from the state. Once these were exposed, the gifts were returned, but it seems they did not violate existing Virginia laws. 

As The Washington Post wrote in its editorial on Aug. 1, “Virginia is for Loopholes: The McDonnell scandal should propel an ambitious reform agenda in Richmond.” The governor and Virginia state lawmakers were explicitly warned in the Center’s report last year that “Virginia’s Swiss-cheese ethics laws are laughably inadequate,” according to the Post.

The Center for Public Integrity gave Virginia an “F” in our report card on the states measuring the risk of corruption, ranking it 47th out of the 50 states.  You can look up your own state’s overall grade and the details behind it based on 330 integrity indicators by clicking here. Some 26 states received a “D” or an “F” and no state got an “A.”

Meanwhile, an editorial in USA Today on Wednesday made much the same point. “Gifts to Va. Governor expose lax state laws: Our View” said that many states’ rules are shot through with loopholes and subjective standards.  The editorial went on to say that like Virginia, a dozen other states place no dollar limit on the gifts a governor may receive. It also noted that 33 states fail to require reporting of gifts to spouses, and 34 don’t require reporting for gifts to children.

The State Integrity Investigation was one of the most extensive data-driven reporting projects in the last decade focused on American state governments. The project’s in-depth, unbiased analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of state governments’ anti-corruption and good governance mechanisms prompted concrete legislative and institutional reform proposals in at least 16 states, so far. Governors, legislators, regulators, and advocacy groups have all used the project’s data and reporting to press for sorely needed public sector ethics reforms in an era of tight budgets and politicized discourse. Virginia is just the latest state where the State Integrity Investigation has come into play.

Media coverage of this project has been extraordinary, featuring dozens of editorials and more than 1,100 unique stories across the country covering the project’s findings. This is a remarkable amount of coverage for what can otherwise be perceived as arcane, technocratic subject matter. In February, this project was nominated as a finalist for the prestigious Goldsmith Award for investigative reporting given by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

I couldn’t be prouder of this work, and our partners, editors and staff, along with the 50 reporters and 50 peer reviewers we hired in each state, all of whom helped compile and distribute this information. Executive Editor Gordon Witkin led this massive effort, directing the orchestration of the team and the thousands of hours it took to complete it. We hope to revisit this project in 2014 and have a chance to re-grade each state in order to capture the progress being made, as well as to document which states are still ethically challenged.

Until next week,
Bill