When it comes to government corruption, there are plenty of ways to judge its impact. There’s the known, direct financial impact – such as money stolen from government accounts. There’s the unknown direct impact – such as when a contract is switched from competitive to sole-source to benefit a friend or in exchange for a kickback. There are also indirect impacts – how many high-value employees leave an organization simply because the environment makes them feel like they’re the accomplice to a crime?
One thing that makes it extremely hard to measure impact is when there isn’t enough transparency to uncover corruption, or there’s simply no corruption-focused agency that’s empowered to investigate it at all. And while that sounds unlikely, it’s a reality in many states.
A report released in late 2018 by the Coalition for Integrity examines a state’s corruptability simply by looking at whether actions which lead to corruption are illegal. For example, is it legal to accept sizable gifts if you’re a politician? Can politicians do outside work while elected, get paid, and not disclose that? Can ethics officials simply be fired without any cause at all?
Following the Coalition for Integrity’s logic, the state with the lowest S.W.A.M.P scores (short for States with Anti-Corruption Measures for Public officials) were most likely to be corrupt. And those states aren’t necessarily the ones that land on most corruption lists. They may not have many high-profile corruption cases – perhaps because it would be difficult to uncover corruption in these states at all. They also don’t rise in lists of “most money lost to corruption” because many of the worst offenders are smaller states.
North Dakota, for instance, received a perfect zero – they had none of the protections against corruption that the Coalition for Integrity valued. Wyoming, the least populous state, came in second to last with a score of 12%. Louisiana, which has faced many high-profile corruption cases over the last several decades, scored much higher with a 48%.
How does a state with a history like Louisiana score better than 17 others? One reason for this is public outrage. When crimes are uncovered in states with few protections, they tend to be massive in scale. This leads to public outrage, which in turn leads to better anti-corruption laws being passed. Louisiana’s main ethics law was passed in 2008, in the aftermath of Katrina, after major questions arose around how the repair money was spent.
Another reason is that not all corruption offenses are high-profile ones. Louisiana is well-known mostly because of high-profile politicians who were ultimately convicted – including Edwin Edwards, Ray Nagin, and William Jefferson. But small-player corruption can still add up to big money, even if it isn’t front-page national news.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to know how much not having ethics rules in a state impacts the amount of corruption in that state. But the Coalition for Integrity is right about at least one thing – the relationship between the two factors is strong.
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