By Jamey Dunn
A watchdog project took a comprehensive look at the potential for corruption in state government, and the results were somewhat unexpected.
The State Integrity Project spent months looking into several areas of state government in all 50 states. The investigation — a joint project between the Center fro Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International — issued a report card and ranked the states this week on their potential for government corruption. And for once, Illinois was not at the bottom of the class.
No states received an “A” from the group and eight states earned a failing grade. Illinois, along with 18 other states, received a C.
A passing grade is little surprising for a state that has seen its two previous governors sent to federal prison for corruption convictions. And New Jersey, the state with the highest grade, has also been associated with corruption in recent years. New Jersey and five other states received a “B.” California, which ranked with Illinois in the top three states for corruption convictions in a recent report from the University of Illinois Chicago and the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs, also received a “B.”
Illinois scored well in the areas of internal auditing, public access to information and its procurement process. The state's procurement procedures and its public information laws were revamped in the wake of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment and removal from office.
The state earned "Ds" for civil service management and legislative accountability and its only "F" for its redistricting process.
A push grew before the 2010 census to revamp the way the state draws its legislative districts every 10 years. But reform efforts fizzled, and lawmakers redrew the maps last year in the same highly partisan and relatively secretive way that they have for decades.
The study warns that changes made in Illinois may do little to address the breadth of the state’s legacy of corruption.
“But in some ways, they are like nips and tucks — cosmetic facelifts that conceal a host of ethical loopholes. Despite wide knowledge of its crooked history, Illinois remains a state where lobbyists do not have to disclose their fees, where legislators cannot be sanctioned for conflicts of interest, and where the judges who make it on the bench are those with the best political connections,” wrote Amanda Vinicky, Statehouse bureau chief for WUIS Public Radio and an Illinois researcher on the project.
David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said Illinois and other states with reputations for corruption likely got passing grades in the study because their legislatures have approved anticorruption laws in reaction to scandal. "If nobody killed anybody, you wouldn’t need laws to outlaw murder. But that doesn’t mean you are protected from being murdered," he said.
Morrison said that the State Integrity Project is an important measure but that it only looked at certain aspects of what plays into state level corruption. He said that the culture is also important, and in that area and others, Illinois still has work to do.
James Nowlan, a senior fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs, said that culture extends beyond politicians to the state’s citizens. “Many in the public tell their children that politics is a dirty business,” he said. Nowlan said the idea that corruption is just a way of life in Illinois can be used to justify it when it occurs.
“I think Illinois needs to work on the cultural underpinnings that seem to tolerate corruption.”
Nowlan said that not just Illinoisans but people across the country might be surprised that Illinois ranked in the top 10 states in an investigation that weighs protection against corruption. When Illinois usually gets a high ranking in such a study, it is similar to the one it got in a recent poll Nowlan conducted. He said that Illinois was perceived as the third most corrupt state in a recent nationwide poll he did to gauge public opinion of corruption across the country. “Illinois sticks out like a sore thumb in the Midwest as perceived to be a corrupt state.” However, most of Illinois’ neighboring states that were perceived to be far less corrupt in Nowlan’s survey ranked equal to or lower than Illinois on the State integrity Project’s scale.