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Corruption in state governments? Researchers turn to reporters for answers

Source: Delcia Lopez, STAFF.

This material belongs to: Chron.

AUSTIN – What are the most corrupt state governments in the United States?

It’s a question that public interest groups and journalists grapple with regularly.

In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization based in Washington, D.C., tried to measure “government integrity.”

Texas ranked 39th in the nationwide survey, with an F in legislative accountability, an F in executive accountability, an F in lobbying disclosure and a D-minus for its ethics enforcement agencies.

The lone bright spot: An A in state budget processes.

But two academics are taking a different tack, with a heavy emphasis on perception is reality.
Researchers Oguzhan Dincer and Michael Johnston compile their data by surveying investigative reporters and politics reporters in every state.

Last year, they contacted nearly 1,000 journalists and received 265 responses with number grades – from 1 meaning corruption was “not at all common,” to 5 meaning corruption was “extremely common” – to several questions about corruption in the three branches of state government.

In addition to gauging perceptions about illegal corruption, Dincer and Johnston also are examining “legal corruption,” which they say is becoming more common nationwide.

Dincer is an associate professor of economics at Illinois State University and director of its new Institute for Corruption Studies. Johnston is a professor at the Austria-based International Anti-Corruption Academy. They began their work in 2014 as lab fellows at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Saffra Center for Ethics.

They acknowledge that surveys like theirs have weaknesses.

“Reporters’ perception are not the same thing as direct evidence of corruption itself. They might be affected by how cynical reporters are toward politics and leading personalities. Moreover, their ideological beliefs might also affect their perceptions,” Dincer said.

Nonetheless, it is important information to compile, since Dincer and Johnston say that journalists’ perceptions have been consistent with other studies that have found corruption deeply rooted in certain states, he said.

When 2016 survey scores about illegal and so-called “legal corruption” are combined, Texas is among nine states perceived to be the most corrupt, along with Massachusetts, Louisiana, Alabama, West Virginia, Mississippi, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York.

The states perceived to be the least corrupt are New Hampshire, Washington, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Iowa, Tennessee, Alaska, and Delaware, according to the survey.