U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara ripped into the political culture in Albany on Thursday during a news conference detailing the arrest of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on corruption charges. Indeed, cynics (including this writer) weren’t surprised that yet another of New York’s public officials landed in hot legal water.
But is Bharara being too tough on the Empire State’s public servants? Is the New York capital really that corrupt? The truth is, there are different ways to measure corruption, and they point in different directions. Here are four measures (I’ll go through each below).
We can look at the absolute number of public officials convicted in federal court on corruption. On that score, New York was No. 1 from 1976 to 2010 with 2,522 convictions. California was No. 2, Illinois No. 3, Florida No. 4 and Pennsylvania No. 5. Yet it’s clear from this list that the most corrupt states are also the states with the biggest populations.
Per capita, Louisiana is the most corrupt state, followed by Mississippi. New York drops to No. 11 on the list, and California falls to 34th. The least corrupt states are Washington and Oregon.
This way of measuring corruption also has problems. Remember, these are only federal crimes. Plenty of corruption falls outside the purview of U.S. authorities. Some acts are technically legal but clearly unethical. We don’t know how many corrupt officials are never caught. And as Oguzhan Dincer and Michael Johnston of Harvard University’s Center for Ethics detail, prosecutors have a lot of leeway in what they investigate.
That’s why Dincer and Johnston surveyed 280 state political reporters to ask them how corrupt they thought the branches of their state governments were. They asked them about illegal corruption (“the private gains in the form of cash or gifts by a government official, in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups”) and legal corruption (“political gains in the form of campaign contributions or endorsements by a government official, in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups, be it by explicit or implicit understanding).”
Aggregating their results across the branches and for both legal and illegal corruption, Kentucky emerges as the most corrupt state. Mississippi drops to No. 7, and California rises to No. 9. New Mexico, which was in the 30s in per capita federal convictions emerges as fifth. The least corrupt state, according to local reporters, was Massachusetts, even though in terms of federal convictions per capita it ranked in the top 25.
Of course, this method, too, has its weaknesses. It’s a survey of impressions. Some reporters are better tied into the political scene than others. And as the authors note, they had only a small number of reporters in some of the less-populated states. They didn’t get a single response from Louisiana.
What about good anti-corruption laws? The State Integrity Investigation had “experienced journalists grade each state government on its corruption risk using 330 specific measures” put into 14 categories, including campaign finance, ethics laws, lobbying regulations and management of the state pension fund.
The scores on these laws had little correlation with the other measures of corruption. Georgia took home the honors as having the least stringent anti-corruption laws. Somehow, New Jersey was rated as having the best anti-corruption laws, even though it ranked as the third and eighth most corrupt state, according to the reporter rankings and federal corruption convictions per capita, respectively. Illinois ranked in the top six across all the other categories, except it had some of the best anti-corruption laws on the books.
The lack of connection between the laws and actual corruption shouldn’t be that surprising. Some of the most corrupt states have recently passed laws because they were corrupt. The less corrupt states may not need the stricter laws.
Bharara, though, did have a point. While most states ranked high in one measure and low in another, New York ranked in the top 15 for most corrupt in every category.