New Jersey, where in 2009 three mayors, two assemblyman and five rabbis were among 44 charged in a money-laundering scheme, is the least corruptible U.S. state, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity.
The center, a Washington-based nonprofit, said it analyzed 16,000 data points during a yearlong study of public-ethics laws in the 50 states. It hired reporters to support its findings with “more than 100,000 words” of anecdotal journalism. New Jersey merited a B-plus, the highest grade, ahead of Connecticut, which earned a B, and Washington, California and Nebraska, which each received B-minus.
Georgia, one of eight states graded F, came in last. The state last penalized a vendor in 1999, even though 658 of its workers accepted sports tickets, meals and other gratuities without reproach in 2007 and 2008, “clearly violating state ethics laws,” according to the report released today. The state also has allowed executives at government-regulated utilities and companies to be among the most generous campaign contributors, creating conflicts of interest, the study found.
“It may seem counterintuitive for New Jersey, with its reputation for corruption, to be ranked number one, but we measured not the amount of disease, but the amount of medicine each state has to deal with the problem,” said Nathaniel Heller, executive director of Global Integrity, a Washington-based nonprofit that also worked on the project, as did Minneapolis-based Public Radio International.
New Jersey’s history includes past Newark Mayors Hugh Addonizio, Kenneth Gibson and Sharpe James, who each became convicted felons over a span of 40 years. Jersey City mayor and Democratic boss Frank Hague was never convicted of a crime, though he declared in 1937, “I am the law.”
Governor Chris Christie, a Republican who took office in 2010, won corruption cases against more than 100 public officials, including state lawmakers, during his seven-year tenure as U.S. attorney for New Jersey. The convictions included James and former state Senate President John Lynch.
“All those public corruption prosecutions, the notoriety of them, the prison sentences and the headlines had the desired effect,” Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, wrote in an e-mail message today. “It made taking that cash-stuffed envelope, rigging contracts or double dealing a very risky proposition and undoubtedly deterred many others.”
State senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Teaneck, said Christie deserves credit and that ethics and transparency laws signed by Democratic Governor Jon Corzine before Christie was elected have changed the culture in Trenton. Weinberg was Corzine’s running mate in his unsuccessful re-election bid against Christie.
Some of New Jersey’s protections include financial-disclosure requirements for its governor, transparency regulations for its pension funds and an “aggressive ethics enforcement agency,” the center’s report said.
“The state also boasts some of the nation’s toughest anti-pay-to-play laws for contractors,” the report says in a supporting document by Caitlin Ginley, one of the journalists hired to write reports explaining each state’s data.
“The risk of corruption remains high in every state capital, but the way we look at it, a scandal that gets exposed and prosecuted may be a sign that things are working right,” Heller said.
In Georgia, former and current officials questioned the Center for Public Integrity’s methodology and objectivity.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” said Rick Thompson, the former executive secretary of the state Ethics Commission, which was renamed the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission last year. Now a consultant on ethics issues in government, Thompson said CPI had changed its approach to the rankings since previous years, distorting the results.
“Instead of doing the due diligence, they farmed it out to reporters,” he said in a phone interview.
Thompson and Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Republican Governor Nathan Deal, said Georgia ranked seventh in a CPI survey released in 2010, noting that it has tightened its ethics standards since. Robinson said Deal’s office has a policy on gifts that is stricter than those of his predecessors.
“It defies credibility that the Center for Public Integrity would have Georgia ranked seventh and now we’re last, when all we’ve done is strengthen our standards,” Robinson said.
Ethics advocates in Georgia, including Georgia Watch and Common Cause, called the report accurate.