Lawmakers proposing bills that benefit their businesses; lobbyists wining and dining public officials; decisions that happen behind closed doors, far from the disinfecting light of public scrutiny.
These are some common examples of unscrupulous politics that appear in a comprehensive study of ethics in state government. Conducted under the auspices of the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity, the State Integrity Investigation recruited journalists to help build a state by state ranking.
The results, as summarized by the organization's website: 50 states and no winners. Eight states received an F compared to four Bs and not a single A. New Jersey ranked as the least corrupt -- a somewhat surprising result given the state's reputation for dirty dealing -- while Georgia came in dead last.
Ethics Laws Not Aggressively Enforced
A central issue highlighted by the report is the lack of effective mechanisms for rooting out chicanery. Despite vows by lawmakers to clean up government, ethics investigations lack punch, or ethics laws are not aggressively enforced.
Many states are also lagging on transparency, particularly when it comes to public officials disclosing their financial activity. States also had an uneven track record for making public records available.
They're selective on what they share, how they share it, and who they share it with, said Greg Smith of the nonprofit group Community Research told Caitlin Ginley, who summarized the investigations' findings.
Another prominent problem is the flimsy walls between those who make laws and those who would benefit from them. Legislators don't always have to disclose whether there is a conflict of interest in a bill they're backing (like, say, if it would result in more profit for businesses they own), while interest groups and lobbyists take advantage of gaping loopholes to influence lawmakers.