PRI and integrity newsrooms plan survey of state and local governments
What do statehouses, city halls do about corruption?
How hard are state and local governments working to prevent corruption? To collect data on what they do, a partnership of Public Radio International and two nonprofits plans to hire a part-time journalist in every state capital.
The partners — PRI, the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity — announced the 18-month project last week, along with two funders that together are contributing $1.5 million, the Omidyar Network and the Rita Allen Foundation.
For the nonprofit newsroom Center for Public Integrity, the partner headed by former NPR and American Public Media news chief Bill Buzenberg, the State Accountability Project follows three earlier and narrower national surveys assessing the states’ clean-government measures and adds local governments to the mix.
Since CPI began examining state ethics laws a decade ago, “we believe maybe 25 states have changed their laws because of this focus on ethics laws,” Buzenberg says.
Global Integrity, another Washington-based nonprofit in the project, brings its experience at rating national governments around the world on anti-corruption and openness measures. The State Accountability Project will publish an anti-corruption index in 2012 similar in form to the Global Integrity Report that the organization has compiled since 2004.
PRI’s role will be to involve the public in the research and help disseminate findings, says Michael Skoler, social media chief at the Minneapolis-based program distributor and producer. The journalists’ findings will be posted online, and web visitors will be encouraged to suggest new measures that should be required to stop or detect officials’ betrayal of the public’s trust. “Our goal is to get people interested in good government,” says Skoler.
“We live in a new media world where people, not simply reporters, can and must be watchdogs for honest government,” Skoler said in a news release.
The national survey won’t rate states and cities on corruption — getting a fix on that would take more than 18 months — but it will look at the presence and enforcement of sunshine laws, disclosure requirements and other measures that promote accountability and transparency. Skoler says they’re the flashlights “that show where the darkness is.”
Influencers are pouring money into the pockets of state officials because state-level politics “is an unregulated area, in many ways,” Buzenberg says.
One of the factors Buzenberg expects to examine is what states disclose about the vast pension funds invested on behalf of state employees. For instance, does a government put decisions in the hands of a single elected official who takes politicalcontributions? He says that was the case in New York state, where a scandal emerged in recent years. The state comptroller is still the sole trustee for almost $133 billion in retirement funds for 1 million state employees, but reforms and prosecutions are under way.
Just last week a state court sentenced a Democratic operative, Hank Morris, to up to four years in prison (Wall Street Journal, Feb. 17, 2011) after pleading guilty to securities fraud in a pension-fund case in New York. Morris forfeited $19 million that he earned in fees for connecting the investment firm Markstone Capital Partners with then-Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who was looking for a place to stow $250 million in pension money. Markstone collected $18 million in fees, and the comptroller pocketed more than $900,000 in the scheme, according to the New York Daily News. Hevesi resigned in 2006 and pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
Having laws against corruption and often enforcing them helps gave the United States a good score of 85 on Global Integrity’s 100-point index, close to Japan’s 83, though lower than some new democracies such as Bulgaria and Poland. Many countries rank lower, including Egypt at 54 and Syria at 29. These indexes come from 2008 and 2009 reports by Global Integrity.
The reports also estimate an Implementation Gap for each country. U.S laws are rated at 90, but the group estimates that they’re actually enforced at the level of 78, yielding a gap of 12.
In younger nations, such as Rwanda, some of the basic anti-corruption factors are missing, says Nathaniel Heller, co-founder and managing director of Global Integrity. Rwanda scored 71, with strong rules against official corruption but weak ones on sunshine, campaign finance and accountability. While that assessment may look at a checklist of more than 30 factors, the officials and reformers convened by Global Integrity after its 2009 survey generally concentrate on a handful of policies that could be adopted. Campaign finance rules, new in Rwanda, were the measures that gained traction there, Heller told Current.
While less-developed countries may be short on formal rules, Global Integrity also considers informal factors that restrict misbehavior, such as traditional social pressures against stealing from the public and the difficulty of keeping secrets in a small capital city.
In advanced governments such as the United States’, politicians continue to build hiding places into legislation, says Buzenberg. And where openness rules are supposed to discourage pay-for-play deals, cheating officials can take the sting out of questionable relationships simply by disclosing them — and continuing to siphon off fees for themselves and their supporters.
Up to two-thirds of the cost of the $1.5 million State Accountability Project was committed by the Omidyar Network, backed by the fortune of eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar. The additional $500,000 comes from the Rita Allen Foundation, based in Princeton, N.J. The foundation’s president is Elizabeth Christopherson, former head of the New Jersey Network.
For information on the project’s hiring of state reporters, see pri.org/reporters-wanted.html.
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