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Study Measures Risk of State Governments' Corruption

What is the risk for corruption in the state governments of North Carolina and South Carolina? Findings from a nationwide study were released today called the State Integrity Investigation. Reporters in each state looked for laws that address hot button issues such as campaign finance and the accountability of elected officials. And then they determined how much those laws were enforced to come up with a final grade. North Carolina scored a C minus, a 71 out of 100. And South Carolina had an F with a 57. The first thing you need to know about this project is that it was enormous. It begins with a list of 330 questions for each state. The questions pertain to areas of government that are historically susceptible to corruption. Areas like campaign finance. Disclosure requirements for lobbyists. State budget processes. Even the management of the state retirement fund. They examine the laws on the books for those areas and then reveal how those laws are actually enforced. The project was organized by three non profits: The Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International, and a group called Global Integrity. Then they hired one reporter in each state-this was a journalist with experience covering the statehouse-to find the answers to those questions. As the reports rolled in, one thread became apparent. "There's a theme that runs throughout a lot of the findings for a lot of the states, which is being called the enforcement gap, which is the situation you find in a state, where they have strong laws but nobody enforcing those laws," says Hochberg. That's Adam Hochberg, the project's editorial manager. He's also a former reporter for NPR and was the investigation's reporter on the ground in Raleigh. Among his many discoveries were loopholes in North Carolina's campaign finance laws, particularly as they pertain to lobbyists. But he says that overall, political scandals within the last seven years-especially the case of Representative Jim Black attempting to buy a vote in an IHOP bathroom in Salisbury-- have tightened North Carolina's ethics laws and practices. "North Carolina ended up in the middle of the pack among all states," says Hochberg. "It was a C grade, which doesn't sound so good, except that no state received an A. So, North Carolina can say it was closer to the top than the bottom, for what that's worth." South Carolina is a different story. The state grades low, particularly in how political parties are financed. Corey Hutchins, a reporter for the Columbia Free-Times and the South Carolina investigation reporter, says that anybody can donate unlimited amounts of money to political party accounts. He cites the 2010 ruling of a South Carolina federal judge that determined that the state's definition of the word "committee" was unconstitutional. Before the ruling, political parties were considered "committees" in the state's Ethics Act. Once their definition was declared unconstitutional, Hutchins says, "Now, people are considered political parties and political action committees." The investigation's findings don't surprise Cathy Hazelwood. She's the general counsel for the South Carolina Ethics Commission. She says that her agency's budget is less than half of what it was in 1999. It has dropped from $750,000 per year in appropriated funds to around $270,000. "We are so financially strained, that when someone complains that we should have gone the distance on something, well, we have to sit and calculate how much does it cost to go the distance on a complaint," says Hazelwood. "Compared to what happens when we cut our losses and negotiate a settlement." That's a signal that policing corruption in the state is not a priority. State Integrity Investigation Q&A Scott Graf: So, the first obvious question here is what state scored the worst? Tanner Latham: Well, Georgia earned that dubious distinction with a score of 49. That, of course, is an F. The investigation found there is a massive gap between Georgia's laws for government accountability and the practice of those laws. SG: And which one was the best? TL: Believe it or not, New Jersey actually ranked highest with a B+ 87. You may remember that back in 2009, there was a huge corruption scandal bringing down three of the state's mayors and five rabbis. But a spokesman from Global Integrity says that's it's because of cases like that that a state often ranks higher. In that case, New Jersey passed stronger laws to deter that kind of behavior from happening again. SG: To make sure I understand correctly, one reporter was charged with gathering all this information for each state? How was this information vetted? TL: For starters, the reporter had to site at least two sources for answering all 330 questions. Those were typically news stories or interviews with representatives from ethics advocacy groups or even lawmakers. Then, all the findings were fact checked by the people at the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. But, there was another filter. The findings were also sent to "peer reviewers," which were local academics, or sometimes other reporters in the state, who cross-checked those findings. The peer reviewers had the opportunity to argue against the findings if they felt they were wrong or misguided. SG: As a reporter, what will you be doing with all this information? TL: Our news reporters are actually digging into all of this information now. We're paying careful attention to the areas that the investigation determined were weak. We'll be reporting on those stories over the next few months. SG: Is this report available to the public? TL: Absolutely. All of the report's findings and sources are posted on the website StateIntegrity.org. And I want to say too that if anyone listening has any ideas about corruption within state government, we want to hear from you. Email us at news@wfae.org. See North Carolina's grades.