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Monday, November 9, 2015

US States mostly flunk transparency and integrity audit: no political will, not a voter issue

Secrecy, corruption and conflicts of interest pervade state governments
The comprehensive probe reported in the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity, found that in state after state, open records laws are laced with exemptions, and part-time legislators and agency officials engage in glaring conflicts of interests and cozy relationships with lobbyists while feckless, understaffed watchdogs struggle to enforce laws as porous as honeycombs.

When first conducted in 2011-2012, the State Integrity Investigation was an unprecedented look at the systems that state governments use to prevent corruption and expose it when it does occur. The 2015 grades are based on 245 questions that ask about key indicators of transparency and accountability, looking not only at what the laws say, but also how well they’re enforced or implemented. The “indicators” are divided into 13 categories: public access to information, political financing, electoral oversight, executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, state budget processes, state civil service management, procurement, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, state pension fund management and ethics enforcement agencies.

The results are “disappointing but not surprising,” said Paula A. Franzese, an expert in state and local government ethics at Seton Hall University School of Law and former chairwoman of the New Jersey State Ethics Commission. “It’s not the sort of issue that commands voters,” she said.

Aside from a few exceptions, there has been little progress on these issues since the State Integrity Investigation was first carried out in 2012. In fact, most scores have dropped since then, though some of that is attributable to changes made to improve and update the project and its methodology.

Since State Integrity’s first go-round, 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 scandal. Five House or Assembly leaders have fallen. No state has outdone New York, where 14 lawmakers have left office since the beginning of 2012 because of ethical or criminal issues, according to a count by Citizens 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 this year but remain in office while they await trial.

Though every state in the nation has open records and meetings laws, they’re typically shot through with holes and exemptions and usually have essentially no enforcement mechanisms, beyond the court system, when agencies refuse to comply. In most states, at least one entire branch of government or agency claims exemptions from the laws. Many agencies routinely fail to explain why they they’ve denied requests. Public officials charge excessive fees to discourage requestors. In the vast majority of states, citizens are unable to quickly and affordably resolve appeals when their records are denied. Only one state — Missouri — received a perfect score on a question asking whether citizens actually receive responses to their requests swiftly and at reasonable cost.

“We’re seeing increased secrecy throughout the country at the state and federal level,” said David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism and an expert on open records laws. He said substantial research shows that the nation’s open records laws have been poked and prodded to include a sprawling list of exemptions and impediments and that public officials increasingly use those statutes to deny access to records. “It’s getting worse every year,” he said.
Florida bombs public integrity test

How Missouri got a D-minus in national ethics report

Kentucky gets D+ grade in 2015 State Integrity Investigation: yawning gaps in oversight remain


Texas Gets a D- in 2015 State Integrity Investigation

Maryland receives ‘F’ grade in public access to information

Hawaii gets D+ grade in 2015 State Integrity Investigation: Lobbyists thrive in land of sunshine

How does your state rank for integrity?
The investigation shows that states have their work cut out for them:

>>  Most states are still grappling with the provision of meaningful and responsive implementation mechanisms to provide citizens and journalists with access to public information. Some — if not most of these barriers — seem to be rooted in the lack of political will, rather than genuinely technical hurdles.
>>  ‘Open data’ is not yet a reality across state governments. While many governments do not make available any open data in particular sectors, electoral data and campaign finance data make a noticeable exception with a few state governments making data sets available in open formats.
>>  Many states fail to ensure their accountability institutions are truly independent. In other cases states reverse hard won gains. Instead, institutions such as independent ethics entities, audit institutions or access-to-information monitoring agencies regularly lack resources and/or their mandates are curtailed.

Unfortunately, the report does not look at US Territories, such as Guam. It would be interesting to see how the whole USA stacks up.

FOLLOW UP:

There is and will be more to this story, as it travels around the states, such as:

Michigan ranks last in laws on ethics, transparency
Michigan, which already had a distinction as one of only two states where both the governor and the Legislature are exempted from state open records laws, has moved backward since 2012.... Of the 245 "corruption risk indicators" in 13 categories examined in the study, Michigan ranked last for laws and systems related to executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability and management of pension funds. Michigan also received grades of F, but did not get ranked last in the nation, in categories related to public access to information, political finance, civil service oversight, procurement, lobbying oversight and ethics oversight.
EDITORIAL: Massachusetts public records reform can't wait

Trouble at the Statehouse: secrecy, questionable ethics and conflicts of interest

Ohio graded D+ in report on integrity — but that was 6th best among 50 states
“While Ohio has many appropriate ethics rules and a strong Sunshine Law, there are simply too many loopholes,” Catherine Turcer, a veteran government watchdog with Common Cause-Ohio, said in the report.

New report a blow to ethics reform in Georgia
The Georgia Legislature has done very little to improve our ethics laws in the past three years, enforcement of open meetings and records laws is non-existent, and we have experienced unprecedented scandals with our state ethics commission that included interference with ethics investigations by the Office of the Governor.

Meaningful ethics reform has not happened in our state in decades, and this 2015 State Integrity Investigation will be the death knell to ethics reform for many more years to come.


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