With the start of the Republican National Convention this week, the presidential election makes the turn from the preliminaries to the main event. The conventions, debates and relentless campaign ads will dominate the political landscape until election day in November.
While the focus turns to electing a chief executive, the executive branch of government at the state level actually can have more direct impact on the lives of citizens. One of the 14 categories we examined in the State Integrity Investigation focused on executive accountability, in which reporters looked at the laws that keep watch on the actions of governors across all 50 states.
The State Integrity Investigation ranked New Jersey as the top state the executive accountability category, in part because of the laws there requiring disclosure of any conflicts of interest for the governor and the auditing procedures in place to review those disclosures. Governors are required to submit an asset disclosure statement, which is posted online for citizens to view within 24 hours. The statement is audited by the State Ethics Commission.
South Carolina brought up the rear in this category, with an 'F' grade. In South Carolina, the governor is required to file a "statement of economic interest'' before taking the oath of office; however, the governor isn't required by that statement to disclose any information about her assets or sources of income. South Carolina has poor financial disclosure laws for all state officials; proposals on the table now from both legislators and Gov. Nikki Haley take aim at that weakness and may be considered in the 2013 legislative session.
One area in which both New Jersey and South Carolina scored poorly -- along with most other states -- involves the ability of governors to set up non-profit organizations that can be used to reward political supporters or circumvent campaign finance laws. Neither state addresses that possibility through statute, and it is a gap in regulation among most other states as well. Tennessee, which scored third in this category, views this kind of organizations in the same category as political action committees and requires disclosure.
For months, South Carolina legislators, the attorney general and the state election commission have been working on a package of ethics reforms to be considered in the next legislative session.
On Wednesday, Gov. Nikki Haley put forth her own five-point plan for ethics reform, including a number of provisions that would regulate behavior Haley herself engaged in while she was in the Legislature. As reported by Gina Smith in The State, Haley's decision to unilaterally offer up a reform package is drawing fire from some of those who already have been at work on a proposal.
Smith reports: "Haley, recently cleared of ethics violation charges, toured the state with South Carolina's top law-enforcement officer, Attorney General Alan Wilson, to unveil a five-point ethics reform proposal But House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R- Charleston, and others said Haley only is trying to hijack the efforts of lawmakers who have been working on ethics reform legislation for months. “... (I)f we had these reforms in place before Governor Haley committed her actions, she would probably still be meeting with the attorney general, only in a different place,” Harrell said in a statement.''
In response to the criticism, The State reports, Haley said:
“As governor, it’s important for me to lead. You lead and you let the Legislature know what we want,” adding lawmakers likely will come up with additional ethics reforms that will strengthen her plan.
To read Gina Smith's full story in The State, click here.
Two legislators in North Dakota are planning to introduce a range of proposals aimed at addressing ethics and transparency in state government, and they are citing the state's abysmal score in the State Integrity Investigation as part of their effort.
As reported by John Celock in the Huffington Post, the proposals by State Reps. Corey Mock (D-Grand Forks) and Ed Gruchalla (D- Fargo) will address campaign finance disclosure, conflict of interest and the need for an ethics watchdog. You can read the full story here.
North Dakota scored a grade of F in the State Integrity Investigation, ranking 43rd among the 50 states. Across the 14 categories rated, North Dakota scored an F in seven of them -- including the categories of polticial financing, legislative accountability, lobbying disclosure and ethics enforcement.
The new proposals, which Mock and Gruchalla will introduce in the 2013 legislative session, include provisions to require state legislative candidates to disclose all donations; establish an ethics commission; require conflict of interest statements for government employees; and require disclosure of all legislative campaign expenses.
North Dakota becomes the fifth state in which legislators have cited the State Integrity Investigation in proposing new legislation to enhance transparency. Three other states have passed reform laws in the wake of the State Integrity Investigation.
By Kathleen Majorsky
The State Integrity Investigation measured corruption risk in all 50 states across 14 categories. The 330 corruption risk indicators for each state break down into two types: “In law” indicators, which simply judge whether a law exists, and “In practice” indicators, which assess whether or not the laws are properly enforced.
The measurement between these two sets of indicators, called the “enforcement gap,” is where cracks and loopholes offer pathways for corruption in state government.
A state’s poor overall grade does not necessarily mean that it has a large enforcement gap. In fact, there are a few states whose final letter grades are less than stellar, falling in the C- to D- range, that have enforcement gap numbers which indicate that the state government actually goes beyond the laws in place.
By Janet Coats
Lobbying is as much a part of the legislative process as roll call votes and committee meetings. Every year, state capitals are filled with legislators and lobbyists, rubbing shoulders as deals are made and laws are thrashed out.
Organizations of all political stripes hire lobbyists to press their case with legislators. In many instances, lobbyists have developed subject matter expertise that adds to the discourse about a particular bill. While the word lobbyists conjures up images of backroom deals and undue influence, their role in the legislative process can be -- and often is -- constructive.
The key to keeping lobbyists in their proper role lies in transparency. Laws that require disclosure of who lobbyists are working for and how much their are paid allow citizens a view into the web of relationships that surround issue advocacy. But the laws are only as good as the enforcement -- and that means regular auditing to ensure accuracy and completness of information.
In the State Integrity Investigations' review of lobbying disclosure laws around the country, North Carolina received an A and a top ranking. It's easy to see why when you review both that state's laws and the methods of enforcement.
North Carolina law ensures several levels of transparency:
- Lobbyists are required to register with the state
- The rules apply to those who lobby the governor as well as the legislature
- Lobbyists are required to report both what they spend to lobby and how much they are paid to do it
- Those who employ lobbyists are also required to report payments to all lobbyists on a quarterly basis
- The secretary of state's office follows up on all these requirements with regular audits. It checks all lobbying reports for completeness, cross-checks all monthy and quarterly reports and compares lobbyist disclosure reports to those of their employers to assure the information is consistent.
- Perhaps most importantly, the information is available to the public. Government watchdogs in North Carolina report that lobbyist disclosure forms are posted promptly on the secretary of state's website, and they were unfamiliar with any cases where a disclosure form was delayed because of sensitive information.
Lobbyists will always be part of the process. The key to balancing the voices of lobbyists with those of individual citizens is disclosure, auditing and availability of information to citizens.
By Alisa Miller, President and CEO of Public Radio International
The success of the State Integrity Investigation is the result of three organizations combining their complementary strengths for a single project and vision. Global Integrity provided a wealth of experience in research and data-gathering in the area of government transparency and accountability. The Center for Public Integrity brought a network of investigative journalists and important editorial leadership. And Public Radio International contributed editorial expertise, leadership in web, social media and digital tools and its collaborative skills by selecting and working with a network of public radio station partners.
In the end, PRI’s project goals were three-fold: contributing to the creation of an incredible storytelling platform for government transparency and effectiveness, partnering with leading stations and other news players to tell local-national-and-international angles on these stories, and finally inspiring individuals to share the State Integrity Investigation results with their family, friends, fellow citizens, and the elected officials who have the power to change the way state government works. In order to reach the final goal, PRI was responsible for creating and managing the initiative website, www.stateintegrity.org, and leading all the social engagement for the project.
By Caitlin Ginley
The Center for Public Integrity
The North Carolina Ethics Commission has received more than 300 ethics complaints since its establishment in 2006 — but it has initiated just 18 investigations through 2010.
The Tennessee Ethics Commission, also established in 2006, has yet to find anyone guilty of an ethics violation. It has heard five complaints in five years — and thrown all of them out.
The Pennsylvania Ethics Commission takes in between 400 and 600 complaints each year. But severe budget cuts have left the panel with only five full-time investigators to handle the workload.
And last year, the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission had its full-time support staff reduced from two people to one.
“It’s just me,” said Jane Feldman, the Colorado commission’s executive director. Feldman said she currently has an annual budget of $224,000 but — unlike commissions in many other states — no investigators or lawyers to initiate real enforcement.
“I don’t think we’re a dirty state. I think we’re a pretty clean state,” Feldman said. “But I think there are cases, especially conflicts of interest issues, where since we don’t have an investigator we don’t follow up.”
Such tales are far from unusual. Some 41 states have government bodies that oversee and enforce state ethics laws. But an examination by the Center for Public Integrity reveals that many of them do little more than provide a false sense of security. In fact, the State Integrity Investigation — a first-of-its-kind probe of accountability in state government — gave grades of either D or F to 28 of those state ethics panels.
The problems and challenges are many. In some states, it boils down to a question of resources — short-staffed agencies with dwindling budgets, outdated, crumbling technology and an increasing workload. Other agencies face restrictions in the law; they can only investigate a complaint if the complainant is willing to be named, or if a majority of commissioners, who may be divided along party lines, agree to pursue a case.
Beyond those obstacles, though, is a more basic and troubling common thread; many of these state ethics watchdogs sport no real teeth. According to the State Integrity Investigation, state ethics commissions remain woefully ill-equipped to properly investigate complaints and dole out punishment.
That’s partly because an inherent conflict stands at the core of the mission: the ethics agency commonly is tasked with policing the same government officials who control its funding, resources and regulatory power.
“The people who it’s policing are the people who give it power,” said Craig McDonald, director of the nonprofit watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. “It has to be independent, or it doesn’t work so well.”
By Mike Mullen
A simple Google search will produce a map and directions on how to find the state capitol, where staffers can help citizens locate legislative chambers and hearing rooms. But this seemingly easy access hardly guarantees that what takes place in open meetings is a reliable predictor for the laws that will govern the state.
Aside from regulations on legislators’ potential conflicts of interest, the Legislative Accountability category also assessed the openness of each state’s lawmaking process. These corruption risk indicators are more difficult to judge by face value, so state reporters turned to statehouse veterans who had been trying to access and influence the legislature. In state after state, sources reported that it is often hard to actually observe the sausage as it is being produced, which helps to explain the oft-surprising flavor it takes on when finally released for public consumption.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was cleared recently in an ethics investigation that focused on whether she should have disclosed that she had a contract with an engineering firm that did millions in state business while she was also serving in the state's legislature. Advocates of transparency in government cite some of the elements of this case in their push to improve the state's ethics laws.
In a story Sunday, The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., explores the issue of ethics reform in South Carolina and the uphill battle those pushing for change may face in the legislature. The story cites South Carolina's F grade and ranking of 45th in the State Integrity Investigation. South Carolina also received an F in the category of ethics enforcement.
The State story details that unlike 44 other states, South Carolina does not require state legislators to fully reveal who they work for or how much they are paid. Their only requirement is to disclose employment and money earned in government jobs and contracts, not in the private sector. This leaves open the possibility that legislators could have a conflict of interest between their private employment and their legislative duty that would go undetected by citizens.
According to The State, State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, and the House Ethics Commission, the S.C. Ethics Commission and state Attorney General Alan Wilson began talks in July on overhauling the state’s ethics laws. The group hopes to prefile legislation in December, prior to the January start of the legislature’s new session. Among the proposals is a requirement for legislators to disclose private-sector employment.
“The recipe for corruption is concentration of power and secrecy. And we have both in this state to a high degree,” Ashley Landess of the S.C. Policy Council told The State. Her group just released an eight-point plan to increase transparency, including requiring full income disclosure from legislators.
You can find the full story at The State.
By Mike Mullen
Ethics enforcement is the first line of defense in protecting the public trust. A state can have all of the proper laws to regulate government behavior, but those laws mean little without a professional and independent enforcement mechanism in place.
The State Integrity Investigation looked into whether states had a fully capable agency, one that could initiate investigations, carry out its mandate without outside interference and impose penalties on those who violate ethics laws across all branches of government. Examples of wrongdoing could range from a legislative leader soliciting under-the-table campaign donations to a workaday state employee taking a gift bribe in exchange for special treatment.
With that much on the line, it’s telling that the two states that the top two states in the Ethics Enforcement category (New Jersey and Connecticut, respectively), also took the top two spots in the State Integrity Investigation's overall rankings. The bottom of the category rankings is unlike any other subject under review in the State Integrity Investigation. Alarmingly, nine states were found to have no ethics enforcement agency in place, and received 0 percent ‘F’ grades.