An intensive study of all 50 states' vulnerability to corruption has found New Jersey top in the nation at stemming the tide of political sleaze. Pennsylvania and Delaware made the top half among state rankings, but only a handful of states rated a B or better in the survey. Fully half earned a D or F.
The Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and the nonprofit Global Integrity spent more than a year on the study, hiring 50 statehouse reporters and looking carefully at states' laws and practices on ethics and transparency.
"Overall, the grades are not good," said Caitlin Ginley, a key staff member on the project. "No state got an A, and even when you look at states that did well, you see there is a lot of room for improvement."
So how does New Jersey come out on top?
"Any time you see a ranking that says New Jersey is doing the best in terms of corruption, it's a little bit eye-popping," said veteran reporter Josh Margolin.
His book with Ted Sherman, "The Jersey Sting," chronicled a bizarre corruption case that featured assorted politicians along with orthodox rabbis, a retired burlesque stripper and an illegal kidney broker.
Margolin said, in part because of its rich tradition of scandal, New Jersey has enacted laws, including a new public records statute, aimed at bringing more openness to the state's political culture. That explains the state's relatively strong showing in the survey.
But Margolin said there are serious weaknesses, among them financial disclosure requirements for state officials.
"The disclosure documents are really, really weak," Margolin said. "They don't give you a lot of good information. They don't give you precise information. By comparison, documents that have to be filled out by members of the United States Congress are far superior."
Margolin said the state's campaign finance laws also need an overhaul.
Pennsylvania rated low
Pennsylvania has seen a parade of high-profile politicians in corruption cases lately. Just over the past year, two former state House Speakers, John Perzel and Bill DeWeese, were convicted of abusing their offices.
The Keystone State got a C minus on the investigation's scorecard, ranking 19th nationally. The state got credit for a new open records law and an aggressive open records officer.
But John Contino, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said his agency has lost a quarter of its budget and a third of its staff to budget cuts in the last four years.
"We're an agency right now of 19 people with statewide investigative jurisdiction," Contino said. "We just cannot pursue all the cases we get complaints on, and we cannot pursue them as effectively as we did when we were fully funded and fully staffed."
Tim Potts, president of the citizens advocacy group Democracy Rising PA, said there have also been deep cuts for the Pennsylvania Department of State, which tracks lobbyist disclosures and campaign finance reports.
"And the amount of money involved in enforcing these laws is pathetically small," Potts said. "You add the State Department, the Ethics Commission and the Office of Open Records, and you're looking at less than $12 million a year. The House and Senate will spend more than that on printing this year."
And Pennsylvania's campaign finance laws are notoriously weak. It's one of a handful of states that permit unlimited contributions, and Contino said it needs restrictions on state vendors contributing to officials they get contracts from.
Delaware also got C minus
Delaware also rated a C minus in the survey, right in the middle of the national rankings. Politics are intimate in a state with only a single congressional district, and there's a tradition of moderation and civility in discourse often known as the "Delaware way."
But John Flaherty, president of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, said disclosure requirements for lobbyist spending are weak. And he said it's legal for government officials not to disclose many gifts.
"Everything you give should be counted, and everything you get should be counted," Flaherty said. "If the governor gets a gift, the governor needs to account for that."
Delaware did well in some categories, such as internal government auditing. But Flaherty said the state does a bad job in key areas, such as making it easy to obtain financial disclosure statements.
"You want to see a financial report about [state Senate President Pro Tempore] Tony DeLuca, you have to go down there and you get a paper copy of it," Flaherty said. "It's time to have that stuff on the Internet. I think the public needs to know that, if somebody has a conflict, it's apparent, and you can take a look at it."
Unfazed by scandal
Delaware is seeing some movement toward further reforms, but Potts said Pennsylvania politicians' response to a string of scandals is nothing short of, well, scandalous.
"We have the most criminally prosecuted legislature in America today, [and] the 'kids for cash' scandal in Luzerne County, which is the worst judicial scandal in American history," Potts said. "The response to this has been virtually nothing."
Those behind the State Integrity Investigation and rankings hope some attention and public embarrassment may change that across the country.
Mark Eichmann contributed to this report.
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