Corruption-Rocked Rhode Island Tops Public Integrity List

Rhode Island, New Jersey and Illinois, three U.S. states notorious for crooked politics in the past, lead a survey ranking the soundness of their anticorruption and transparency laws.

The Better Government Association, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that identifies waste and inefficiency, said those states had the toughest rules in four areas: freedom of information, public meetings, conflict of interest and whistle-blower protection.

The results reflected a poor collective performance, with all states averaging 55 percent on a 100-point scale. The study identified a “reality gap” between laws and enforcement, and suggested that states with the worst reputations simply had more room to improve. While they scored highest, all three top-ranked states rated barely passing grades.

“Our 50 states are failing the basic test of integrity,” Andy Shaw, president and chief executive officer of the group, said by e-mail. “Even the states with the highest scores are below 70 percent.”

Rounding out the 10 with the strongest laws were Nebraska, California, Louisiana, Texas, Washington, Kentucky and Arkansas, according to the study.

“States with the worst reputations and sorriest histories of political corruption face the most public pressure to clean up their acts, so they pass new laws and strengthen old ones to create a framework of integrity,” the group said in the report. “That doesn’t mean that all of the public officials in those states are following the new rules or obeying the new laws.”

Montana Last

Montana ranked last, scoring 28 percent, perhaps an indication that it and other low-ranked states may not have “experienced rampant political corruption and, as a result, they haven’t felt the need to pass tough laws,” according to the study.

The report, the association’s third and its most recent since 2008, reflected laws on the books as of December 2012. Its measures included response time to public-records requests, public-meeting procedures, financial disclosure for elected officials and protection for employees who identify dangerous or illegal working conditions.

The group said “corruption,” and not “integrity,” was the word probably most associated with the leading finishers, “because of the sheer volume of high-visibility indictments, trials and convictions of their top public officials.”

Rhode Island was declared “for sale” by muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens in a 1905 McClure’s magazine article that documented a system of bribery and voter manipulation.

‘Bid Rig’

More recently, ex-Governor Edward DiPrete, a Republican, in 1998 pleaded guilty to corruption for taking bribes from contractors. Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, who twice resigned as Providence mayor -- in 1990, after a felony assault conviction, and in 2002, after a racketeering conviction -- told in March that he wouldn’t rule out another run next year.

In 2009, a federal sting called Operation Bid Rig led to the arrests of 44 defendants in New York and New Jersey, many of them elected or appointed public officials. Among the New Jerseyans who were convicted or pleaded guilty were two mayors and a former assemblyman.

In Illinois, ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat serving 14 years in prison for corruption, yesterday filed an appeal of his conviction and sentence. Blagojevich argued he was prejudiced by exclusion of evidence and “one-sided and erroneous evidentiary rulings,” of the lower court judge.

Republican George Ryan, Blagojevich’s predecessor, ended a prison sentence for corruption on his release from home confinement this month.

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