“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 2016 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 2016, we conducted the third wave of the Corruption in America Survey. We contacted close to 1,000 reporters via email/phone. We received a total of 265 responses. Unfortunately, in some states (Delaware, Iowa, Maryland, Montana, New Hampshire, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming) 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 Arkansas, Nebraska, and 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 2015 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 Louisiana and Massachusetts, in none of the states is illegal corruption in government perceived to be “extremely common” in any of the governmental branches. In both states the legislative branches score 5. 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. Alabama, West Virginia, Louisiana and Massachusetts are perceived to be the most corrupt states with executive, legislative, and judicial branches all scoring 3 or higher. Colorado and Wyoming are perceived to be the least corrupt states with all three government branches scoring 1.

Executive Branch

In more than ten states executive branches score 3 or higher in illegal corruption. Although only in Massachusetts is illegal corruption in the executive branch perceived to be “extremely common” by the reporters it is, on the other hand, “very common” in Louisiana and West Virginia and somewhere between “very common” and “extremely common” in Alabama.

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 ten states, illegal corruption in state legislatures is perceived to be “very common” or “extremely common”. Massachusetts is the only state in which both legislative and executive branches are perceived to be extremely corrupt.

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 Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi and West Virginia illegal corruption in the judiciary is perceived to be moderately common. Both the executive and legislative branches in these states 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 3 or higher in legal corruption in a large majority of states. In four states, legal corruption in the judicial branch is perceived to be more than “moderately common”. and in Louisiana it is perceived to be “very common”. In almost half of the states, both legislative and executive branches score 4 or higher. In Massachusetts legal corruption is perceived to be “extremely common”, not only in the executive and legislative branches but also in the judicial branch.

Executive Branch

In five states, legal corruption in executive branches is perceived to be more than “very common”. Alabama, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and West Virginia, 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, Hawaii, Indiana, Maryland, Maine, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Wisconsin, while illegal corruption in the executive branches is perceived to be “slightly common” or “not at all common,” legal corruption is perceived to be “very common” or “extremely common.”

Legislative Branch

Legal corruption in the legislative branch is particularly worrying in almost all states. In more than two thirds of the states, it is perceived to be either “very common” or “extremely common.” Only in New Hampshire and Washington do legislative branches score 2 or less. California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Indiana, Maine, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin suffer from only legal corruption, while Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and West Virginia 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 in eleven states. In Louisiana and Massachusetts it is perceived to be “very common” and “extremely common”, respectively. While in Louisiana judges are elected via partisan elections, in Massachusetts they are appointed by the Governor with the approval of the Governor’s Council (a form of merit selection). Among the states that hold partisan elections of judges, only in New Mexico and Ohio is legal corruption in the judicial branch perceived to be “slightly common.” Judicial branches in Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, and Wisconsin which elect their judges via non-partisan elections, 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, Massachusetts and Louisiana are perceived to be the most corrupt states, followed by Alabama and West Virginia, and some other usual suspects such as  Mississippi, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York. Colorado and Wyoming are perceived to be the least corrupt states, followed by Iowa, California, and Delaware. With respect to legal corruption, Massachusetts and Louisiana are again perceived to be the most corrupt states followed by New Jersey and a group states which includes Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. New Hampshire and Washington are the least corrupt states followed by Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming.

It is all bad news for Massachusetts, Louisiana, Alabama, West Virginia, Mississippi, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas as their aggregate scores are in the highest quartiles of both illegal and legal corruption. Not so bad news for New Hampshire, Washington, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Iowa, Tennessee, Alaska, and Delaware, which are perceived 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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