“In 2014, we started surveying news reporters covering state politics in addition to the investigative reporters covering issues related to corruption to construct perception-based indices measuring two specific forms of corruption across American states: illegal and legal. The first two waves of the Corruption in America Survey were hosted by Harvard Law School’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. Starting from this year the survey will be hosted by the newly founded Institute for Corruption Studies which is an independent research institute within the Department of Economics at the Illinois State University.”

Measuring Illegal and Legal Corruption in American States:

Some Results from 2018 Corruption in America Survey

By Oguzhan Dincer and Michael Johnston

We started surveying news reporters covering state politics in addition to the investigative reporters covering issues related to corruption in 2014, to construct perception-based indices measuring two specific forms of corruption across American states: illegal and legal. In the second half of 2018, we conducted the fifth wave of the Corruption in America Survey. We contacted close to 1,000 reporters via email/phone. We received a total of 240 responses. Unfortunately, in some states (Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, and New Hampshire) we have a small number of responses partly due to small number of reporters covering state politics. Hence, while interpreting the results from these states we should be cautious. We received no responses from North Dakota.​

In our survey, we define illegal corruption as the private gains in the form of cash or gifts by a government official, in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups. It is the form of corruption that attracts a great deal of public attention. A second form of corruption, however, is becoming more and more common in America: legal corruption. We define legal corruption as the political gains in the form of campaign contributions or endorsements by a government official, in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups, be it by explicit or implicit understanding. We asked reporters how common were these two forms of corruption in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government in 2017 in the state they cover in their reporting. The response scale ranged from “not at all common” to “extremely common.” For each reporter responding to the survey, we assigned a score of 1 if he/she chose “not at all common,” 2 if he/she chose “slightly common,” and so on. The score of 5 meant that the reporter responding to the survey perceived corruption to be “extremely common.” We then calculated the state scores as the median of these individual scores, which are presented in the tables and maps below (darker color indicates higher corruption).

Surveys such as ours have several weaknesses, particularly when it comes to measuring activities such as corruption. Reporters’ perceptions are not the same thing as direct evidence of corruption itself. They might be affected by how cynical reporters are towards politics and leading personalities. Moreover, their ideological beliefs might also affect their perceptions. Finally, corruption scandals of the recent past, and beliefs about leading personalities in those events, might very well affect the reporters’ corruption perceptions of today. That is why the perception scores should not be conceptualized as a measure of corruption as such, but rather as a diffuse reflection of it. We could, by analogy, think of light reflected off an uneven surface: we would not expect the clarity of a mirror image, but might still be able to judge attributes such as brightness or color, as well as significant trends in both. While we would naturally refrain from over-interpreting such a reflection, we would still be gaining information.

Illegal Corruption in America

Except for Arkansas and Kentucky, in none of the states is illegal corruption in government perceived to be more than “very common” in any of the governmental branches. In both states legislative branches score higher than 4. It is nevertheless “moderately common” and/or “very common” in both the executive and legislative branches in a significant number of states, including the usual suspects such as Mississippi, New Jersey, and New York. Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi are perceived to be the most corrupt states with executive, legislative, and judicial branches all scoring 3 or higher. Iowa and Oregon are perceived to be the least corrupt states with all three government branches scoring lower than 2.

Executive Branch

In more than ten states executive branches score 3 or higher in illegal corruption. In none of the states is illegal corruption in the executive branch perceived to be “extremely common” by the reporters. It is, on the other hand, perceived to be “very common” in Kentucky and New York.

Legislative Branch

State legislators are perceived to be more corrupt than the members of the executive branches in a number of states. In almost half of the states, legislative branches score 3 or higher in illegal corruption. In Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and New York, illegal corruption in state legislatures is perceived to be “very common” or “extremely common”.

Judicial Branch

No states score 4 or higher in illegal corruption in judiciary. Nevertheless, even a score of 2 is still worrying since it is the judicial branch of the government that is expected to try government officials charged with corruption. In Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia illegal corruption in the judiciary is perceived to be moderately common. Both the executive and legislative branches in Arkansas Louisiana, and Mississippi are also perceived to be corrupt with the scores of 3 and higher.

Legal Corruption in America

Legal corruption is perceived to be more common than illegal corruption in all branches of government. Executive and legislative branches score 4 or higher in legal corruption in more than 10 states. In Kentucky legal corruption is perceived to be “extremely common”, not only in the executive branch but also in legislative branch. In two states, legal corruption in the judicial branch is perceived to be “very common” or more. Louisiana scores 4 or higher in legal corruption in all branches of government.

Executive Branch

In a significant number of states, legal corruption in executive branches is perceived to be more “very common” or more. Kentucky and New York, for example, suffer from not only illegal corruption but also legal corruption. Executive branches in these states score 4 or higher in both forms of corruption. In Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, Texas, and Wisconsin, while illegal corruption in the executive branches is perceived to be “slightly common” or less, legal corruption is perceived to be “very common” or more.

Legislative Branch

Legal corruption in the legislative branch is particularly worrying in almost all states. In more than half of the states, it is perceived to be either “very common” or “extremely common.” Only in Kansas, Maine, and Montana do legislative branches score less than 3. Alaska, California, Oregon, and Wisconsin suffer from only legal corruption, while Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and New York in which legal corruption is perceived to be “very common” or “extremely common”, suffer from both forms of corruption.

Judicial Branch

Legal corruption in the judicial branch is more common than illegal corruption. Legal corruption in the judiciary is perceived to be “moderately common” or more than ten states. In Louisiana and West Virginia it is perceived to be “very common”. While in Louisiana judges are elected via partisan elections, in West Virginia they are elected via non-partisan elections. Judicial branches in all of the states which elect their judges via elections (partisan or non-partisan), score a 3 or higher. The majority of the states in which legal corruption in the judicial branch is perceived be “not at all common” elect their judges via merit selection. These findings should be of particular concern to citizens and officials alike, as in theory we expect our courts to rise above the day-to-day pressures and expectations of politics. That they apparently do not, raises serious questions about the ways judges are elected in many states, how their campaigns are financed, and whether conflicts of interest arise as those who contribute to judicial campaigns are allowed to appear before those same judges as cases are tried.

Aggregating the Results: Most and least Corrupt States

 

What are the most and least corrupt states, taking all three government branches into account? Although there is always some information lost in aggregation, which is particularly important in the measurement of corruption, it is still an important question. We simply add the median scores of each government branch and calculate the aggregate score of a state. The table below presents the states whose aggregate scores are in the highest (i.e., most corrupt) and lowest (i.e., least corrupt) quartiles.

With respect to illegal corruption, Alabama and Kentucky are perceived to be the most corrupt states, followed by Louisiana and Oklahoma, and some other usual suspects such as Mississippi and New Jersey. Kansas and Montana are perceived to be the least corrupt states, followed by Minnesota, California, Colorado, Iowa, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming. With respect to legal corruption, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Wisconsin are perceived to be the most corrupt states followed by New York and Texas and a group states which includes Illinois, Kentucky, and Oregon. Colorado and Nebraska are the least corrupt states followed by Minnesota, Montana, and Washington.

It is all bad news for Alabama, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Oklahoma as their aggregate scores are in the highest quartiles of both illegal and legal corruption. Not so bad news for Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming which are perceived to be least corrupt both illegally and legally. The map below presents the aggregate corruption scores of each state (bigger circle indicates higher illegal corruption while darker color indicates higher legal corruption).

These findings are broadly consistent with a number of comparative assessments of state corruption over the years, suggesting that the extent of corruption in state governments is not just a matter of contemporary personalities and events, but is rather a result of deeper and more lasting characteristics and influences.

Oguzhan Dincer is an Associate Professor of Economics at the Illinois State University and the Director of the Institute for Corruption Studies. He can be contacted at odincer@ilstu.edu.

Michael Johnston is Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science at Colgate University (Emeritus) and the Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Institute for Corruption Studies. He can be contacted at mjohnston@colgate.edu.

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