Measuring Illegal and Legal Corruption in American States: Some Results from the 2015 Corruption in America Survey
By Oguzhan Dincer and Michael Johnston, Illinois State University, April, 2016
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. We released the results of the first wave of the Edmond J. Safra Center Corruption in America Survey in late 2014. In the second half of 2015, we conducted the second wave of the survey. We contacted close to 1,000 reporters via email/phone. We received a total of 250 responses. Unfortunately, in some states (Delaware, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, 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 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 the U.S.: 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 2013 in the state they cover in their reporting in 2013. 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.
Illegal Corruption in America
Except for Georgia, in none of the states is illegal corruption in government perceived to be “extremely common” in any of the governmental branches. In Georgia, the executive branch scores 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. West Virginia is perceived to be the most corrupt state with executive, legislative and judicial branches all scoring 3 or higher (3.5, 4, and 3, respectively). Among the states in which the legislative and executive branches are perceived to be corrupt, only in Oklahoma is illegal corruption in the judicial branch perceived to be less than “slightly common.” Delaware, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Washington are perceived to be the least corrupt states with all three government branches scoring less than 2. Only in Oregon is illegal corruption perceived to be “not at all common”.
In more than fifteen states, executive branches score 3 or higher in illegal corruption. Although only in Georgia is illegal corruption in the executive branch perceived to be “extremely common” by the reporters it is, on the other hand, “very common” in Mississippi, New Jersey, and Hawaii and somewhere between “moderately common” and “very common” in Oklahoma and West Virginia.
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 six states, the legislative branch is perceived to be more than moderately corrupt. Hawaii is the only state in which both legislative and executive branches are perceived to be very corrupt.
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, Massachusetts, and West Virginia illegal corruption in the judiciary is perceived to be moderately common. Both the executive and legislative branches in Arkansas and West Virginia 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 five states, legal corruption in the judicial branch is perceived to be more than “moderately common” and in Arkansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Montana it is perceived to be “very common”. In half of the states, both legislative and executive branches score 4 or higher and in Virginia and Georgia they score 5. In Louisiana legal corruption is perceived to be very common, not only in the executive and legislative branches but also in the judicial branch.
In half of the states, legal corruption in executive branches is perceived to be “very common” or “extremely common.” Mississippi, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Georgia, 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 Maine, California, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Nevada, Texas, New York, South Carolina, Montana, and Virginia, 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.”
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 a few states do legislative branches score 2. Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Missouri, Maryland, Nevada, Texas, North Carolina, and Massachusetts suffer from only legal corruption, while Hawaii, Rhode Island, and West Virginia in which legal corruption is perceived to be “very common” or “extremely common,” suffer from both forms of corruption.
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 and “very common” in Arkansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Montana. While in Louisiana judges are elected via partisan elections, Arkansas and Montana hold non-partisan elections. Among the states that hold partisan elections of judges, only in Illinois, Texas, and Ohio is legal corruption in the judicial branch perceived to be “slightly common.” Judicial branches in Georgia, Kentucky, Nevada, and Wisconsin which elect their judges via non-partisan elections, score a 3. 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, Georgia and West Virginia are perceived to be the most corrupt states, followed by Hawaii, and a third group of states that includes New Jersey, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Oregon is perceived to be the least corrupt state, followed by Vermont, and a third group of states that includes Iowa, Maine, and Wyoming. Those 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.
Georgia and West Virginia are not only perceived to be illegally corrupt but also legally corrupt. With respect to legal corruption, Arkansas and Georgia are the most corrupt states followed by Oklahoma, Louisiana, Montana, and Virginia while Washington and Wyoming are the least corrupt states followed Iowa and South Dakota. It is all bad news for Georgia, West Virginia, Hawaii, New Jersey, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kentucky, and Louisiana as their aggregate scores are in the highest quartiles of both illegal and legal corruption. Not so bad news for Vermont, Washington, Wyoming, Tennessee, Minnesota, Delaware, South Dakota Nebraska, and New Hampshire, which are perceived least corrupt both illegally and legally.
Oguzhan Dincer is an Associate Professor of Economics at the Illinois State University and a former Lab Fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Johnston is Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science at Colgate University (Emeritus) and a former Lab Fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. He can be contacted at email@example.com.