States flunk at integrity

Commentary: Bad report card for the states

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In 2013, the director of the Idaho Racing Commission told state lawmakers that controversial “instant racing” machines could help save the state’s dying betting industry. He did not tell them he was also registered as a lobbyist in Wyoming on behalf of a company that operates the machines there. That detail didn’t come to light until January, when a reporter at the Idaho Statesman unearthed the potential conflict. The official resigned within days, but apparently broke no laws or rules because he had told his superiors about his employment.

That’s right. A state official worked for a company in an industry he oversaw. Lawmakers apparently didn’t know about the relationship. And technically, there was nothing wrong with that. This situation is not as rare as you might think.

Across the country, state lawmakers and agency officials operate with glaring conflicts of interest and engage in brazenly cozy relationships with lobbyists. Ethics and open records laws are riddled with loopholes, while the watchdogs meant to enforce them face crippling shortages of cash and staff. Those are the findings of the new State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven ranking and assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.

Alaska received the top grade, earning a C. Only two others — California and Connecticut — earned better than a D+; 11 states received failing grades, with Michigan coming in last. The rankings and grades are based on detailed answers to 245 questions that were researched by experienced reporters in each state. The queries are divided into 13 categories — from public access to information to campaign finance to ethics enforcement — and deal not only with the laws but also how well they’re enforced or implemented.

The results are deeply troubling. In most states, entire branches of government or agencies claim exemptions from open records laws. In two-thirds of all states, ethics oversight entities regularly fail to initiate investigations or impose sanctions. The laws or rules that govern when lawmakers should abstain from voting based on conflicts of interest are often hopelessly vague, and legislators sometimes ignore them anyway.

“Many of these laws are out of date, they need to be revised,” said Robert Stern, who was president of the Center for Governmental Studies, which worked with state and local governments on ethics and disclosure laws until it closed in 2011. Stern is now helping draft a ballot measure in California to update the state’s campaign finance and ethics laws. “It’s very, very difficult for legislatures to focus on these things and improve them because they don’t want these laws, they don’t want to enforce them and they don’t want to fund people enforcing them.”

It may be tempting to write off corruption in state government as small-time, little more than fodder for racy headlines and tasteless jokes. But in fact, state legislatures pass thousands of bills a year and collect and disburse more than $1 trillion. Indeed, gridlock and partisanship in Washington D.C. have pushed a majority of Americans to turn to state and local government for solutions to the country’s problems, according to a recent poll. Given the findings of the State Integrity Investigation, that’s a worrisome prospect.

At the same time, newspaper coverage of statehouses is shrinking, with full-time statehouse staff suffering a 35 percent drop between 2003 and 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. Newswires, nonprofit news organizations and other unconventional outlets are trying to fill the gap, but they haven’t made up for the loss of newspaper reporters in the halls of state capitols. With fewer prying eyes snooping into their business, perhaps it’s no surprise that state officials regularly engage in such dubious behavior.

In 36 states, the State Integrity Investigation found, lawmakers at least occasionally vote on bills that may present a conflict of interest. Take the lawmaker in Missouri who introduced a bill this year to prohibit cities from banning plastic bags in grocery stores. It just so happens he’s also state director of the Missouri Grocers Association. Or his peers in real estate and ranching who sponsored bills to help landlords and cattlemen. And those are just the ones we know about.

“We would love to be able to do more comprehensive audits,” said Carol Williams, executive director of Kansas’ Governmental Ethics Commission. Williams told the investigation’s Kansas reporter that her staff is unable to audit the financial disclosure forms submitted to her office. Instead, all they can do is make sure officials are filling them out. “Whether they are correct or not, we don't know,” she said.

She’s not alone. Only two states initiate comprehensive, independent audits of lawmakers’ financial disclosures on an annual basis. In 3-in-5 states, the project found, inadequate funding causes ethics oversight staff to be overloaded with work and, occasionally, forces them to delay their investigations.

Delaware's Public Integrity Commission, which oversees lobbying and ethics laws for the executive branch there, has just two full-time employees. A 2013 report by a special state prosecutor found that the agency was unable “to undertake any serious inquiry or investigation into potential wrongdoing.”

Where states scored the worst, however, was in handling public access to information. Only six states escaped a failing grade in that category. Open records laws have been bogged down with lengthy lists of exemptions. Executive agencies regularly charge exorbitant fees — thousands or even millions of dollars in the case of the Massachusetts State Police. Citizens whose requests are rejected often have no recourse other than legal action, a lengthy and expensive prospect. The general attitude was summed up best in 2013 by one New Mexico representative, who defended a rule the Legislature passed that declared lawmakers’ emails exempt from open records laws. “I think it’s up to me to decide if you can have my record,” he said.

Since the beginning of 2012, at least 12 states have seen their legislative leaders or top cabinet-level officials charged, convicted or resign as a result of ethics or corruption-related scandals. Five house or assembly leaders have fallen. No state has outdone New York, where 14 lawmakers have left office since the beginning of 2012 due to ethical or criminal issues, according to a count by Citizen’s Union, an advocacy group. That does not include the former leaders of both the Assembly and the Senate, who were charged in unrelated corruption schemes earlier this year but remain in office without their leadership roles. Together, they comprised two of the “three men in a room” who, along with the governor, essentially decide how to spend the Empire State’s $140 billion annual budget.

Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis famously wrote that states are the laboratories of democracy, and that sunlight is the best disinfectant. If this sorry litany of corruption cases is what happens when the labs have no windows, what are we left to think about their experiments?

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