Report: New Jersey First in Anti-Corruption Measures

By: - March 19, 2012 12:00 am

New Jersey has some of the strictest anti-corruption and ethics laws in the United States, and those laws are frequently enforced, a comprehensive investigation of the nation’s 50 state governments has found.

Yes, that New Jersey — the state that where at least five legislators in the last decade have been found guilty of official misconduct. It’s the same New Jersey whose governor resigned in 2004 while admitting he had an extramarital affair with a man whom he had appointed as the state’s homeland security advisor.

But some of those scandals have prompted overhauls to state ethics laws that now outpace safeguards found elsewhere, according to State Integrity Investigation , a collaboration of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.

“People {in New Jersey} do get caught. They are fined. They’re put away,” said Nathaniel Heller, managing director of Global Integrity, in a conference call with reporters. “For those who were watching The Sopranos on TV that might be a surprise.”   

Journalists in each state tracked 330 “corruption risk indicators,” across 14 categories, assigning grades and rankings to each state government. The reporting found that the governments largely lack transparency and accountability to their citizens, leaving statehouses prone to corruption.  

Much of that is caused by public records laws that are weak and sometimes riddled with exemptions, according to the investigation. For example, Vermont’s open records laws contain some 260 exemptions. And in sparsely populated Wyoming, legislators have exempted themselves from such laws, staying true to a culture that values privacy.  

Some states have strong laws on the books, but weak or non-existent mechanisms to enforce them, the investigation found. That’s often because of short-staffed agencies, budget shortfalls or a simple lack of political will. States with the biggest gaps between laws and enforcement were Virginia, Montana, Idaho, South Dakota, Vermont and Nebraska. 

New Jersey’s top score, as well as Illinois’ tenth place ranking, signified a trend in which high-profile corruption cases sparked legislation that boosted government accountability, reporters said. 

States where large scandals haven’t been uncovered, on the other hand, often have weaker or non-existent laws and enforcement capabilities. That’s the case, according to the investigation, in North Dakota, Wyoming and South Dakota, which joined Michigan, South Carolina, Maine, Virginia and Georgia at the bottom of the overall list, with each receiving failing grades.

New Jersey’s recently strengthened laws include protections against nepotism among state employees and prohibition of gift-giving between lobbyists and executive branch employees. Additionally, the state has made its ethics commission more independent while bestowing it with the power to punish violators, the report said.

Joining New Jersey atop the list of more vigilant states were Connecticut, Washington, California and Nebraska. Each received grades in the B range, signifying some lingering gaps in legislation and enforcement. 

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