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.
'Stealth' budgeting and 'striker' bills eliminate public from the process
By Kathleen Ingley and Maureen West
Arizona’s legislative session this year was as hard to track as a Stealth bomber, even for many Capitol regulars.
A bill focused on attorney’s fees turned into a controversial measure about abortion. Other bills changed subjects too. And the Legislature took just one morning of public testimony about the budget. The real wrangling over state spending was done in two months of private meetings between the governor and legislative leaders. But the details of the blueprint weren’t public until lawmakers were on the floor ready to vote.
By Caitlin Ginley
Citing the Center for Public Integrity’s States of Disclosure project and State Integrity Investigation as a basis for reform, the nonpartisan research group Integrity Florida has issued a report calling for stronger financial disclosure requirements in the Sunshine State.
Among the report’s recommendations: requiring Florida state officials to fill out more detailed financial disclosure forms and making that information available online in a searchable database format.
By Mike Mullen
Fewer and fewer Americans have faith in the integrity of the legislative process in Washington, D.C. Recent investigations have uncovered the frequency with which legislators use their insider knowledge to profit using timely maneuvers with their stock holdings; on July 10, the House Ethics committee voted to move forward with an investigation into whether Nevada Rep. Sheila Berkeley used her influence to protect her husband’s business interests.
But political power wielded for selfish interest exists just outside the Beltway, too. In neighboring Maryland and Virginia, the State Integrity Investigation uncovered a lax system of oversight on the conduct of state legislators. Both states were found lacking in the requirements and enforcement of state legislators’ conflict of interests, which present the obvious threat of legislators setting state policy and spending taxpayer money in order to line their own pockets.
New laws and changes in existing ones can dramatically affect the ways that government is accountable to the citizens it is supposed to serve.
Keeping track of those changes -- at both the state and national level -- can be a daunting task. We're adding access to a tool on the State Integrity Investigation website today that makes that task signficantly easier.
With Scout, you can keep track of legislation on subjects that matter to you, create alerts so that you will automatically be notified of changes in the status of a bill and share your searches with others.
Scout was created by the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that uses the power of the internet and digital tools to work for government openness and transparency. It tracks legislation on both the state and national level; the service is free.
To use Scout, you access the search box in the right column of this site, below this post. You can type in a word or phrase on any subject (try "intellectual property'' for a test) and Scout will return results on legislation in Congress, speeches in Congress and legislation in the states on that subject. If you enter Scout from a state page on the site, your search will return information specific to that state. You then can create an alert, so that you'll automatically be notified about new developments on that topic. You can learn more on the Scout website here.
We'll be telling you more about Scout, the thinking behind it, how it is being used and how you can make it work for you throughout the week.
By Mike Mullen
Most elected officials don’t want to tell citizens anything but the good news. But practiced speeches, triumphant press conferences, and highly polished press releases are little more than the announcement of policy decisions. By that time, the facts have been spun, sweetened and seasoned for public consumption. If you want the full story, you probably have to ask.
Though every state has some form of an “open record” law, exceptions and interpretations in many states are designed to protect the government, and leave the burden of discovery on the citizen. The State Integrity Investigation uncovered numerous legal and financial obstacles that prevent revelations of how and why a state government takes action. According to Caitlin Ginley of the Center for Public Integrity, “in state after state, the laws are riddled with exemptions and loopholes that often impede the public’s right to know rather than improve upon it.”
Request for action follows prosecutor's report alleging fraud in Grand Rapids election
By Caitlin Ginley
Michigan House Democrats have cited the state’s failing grade from the State Integrity Investigation in a resolution calling for investigation of alleged election irregularities.
“A recent report by the State Integrity Investigation ranked Michigan’s government 43rd in the country in terms of accountability and risk of corruption,” stated the resolution, issued earlier this week. “The report card gave Michigan an ‘F’ grade in areas like campaign finance and legislative accountability among other areas.”
By Corey Hutchins
South Carolina State Sen. Mike Rose is a lucky man. The Republican lawmaker from Summerville known for championing ethics reform lost his primary bid, with his opponent winning 60 percent of the vote — but he can still stay in office.
How is that possible? Rose is an incumbent in an election year that has seen roughly 250 non-incumbent candidates kicked off ballots all across South Carolina because of a controversial State Supreme Court decision and a filing technicality related to campaign paperwork.