State With Most Integrity is New Jersey, Center for Public Integrity Study Shows

WASHINGTON -- A new study named a state known for government scandals and arrests as in the best position to prevent corruption.

The State Integrity Investigation, being released Monday by the Center for Public Integrity, ranked New Jersey first for having procedures in place for a transparent government meant to prevent corruption. The report concludes CPI's in-depth assessment of the 50 states, including a study of the state's procedures to maintain a transparent government and ethics watchdogs. New Jersey is joined at the top of the list by no. 2-ranked Connecticut, which saw former Gov. John Rowland (R) resign amid corruption scandals in 2004.

Gordon Witkin, CPI's managing editor, said the results initially surprised the staff but the formula used by the group helped determine the rankings. "We were surprised by some of the results as much as anyone else," Witkin said. "Keep in mind we're not measuring cases of corruption, but the systems in place to prevent it, and encourage openness and transparency in government."

Under the formula used by CPI, no states received an A grade; New Jersey's received the only B+. Joining the Garden State in the top five are Connecticut, Washington, California and Nebraska. Nineteen states received Cs and 18 received Ds. Eight states -- North Dakota, Michigan, South Carolina, Maine, Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota and Georgia -- received Fs.

Among the criteria used were information access laws, campaign finance, accountability of all three branches of government, state budget transparency, civil service procedures, purchasing, lobbyist disclosure, audits, pension fund management, ethics bodies, insurance regulation and redistricting.

Witkin said the reports did show that the reason some of the smaller states ranked toward the bottom was their political culture, based on many in government knowing each other and the belief that an ethics watchdog is not needed.

In the case of New Jersey, Witkin said a stronger ethics commission and pay-to-play ban enacted in 2005 helped the state's rating. Other aspects cited by CPI included the state's public records access law, along with the state comptroller's office established in 2008.

At the same time, those in New Jersey question if a ranking would allow the state's storied corruption history to go away. In 2009, 45 public officials and contractors statewide were arrested in the state's largest single-day federal corruption arrest.

"You can put safeguards in, but at the end of the day it comes down to having a moral compass," Jersey City Councilman Steve Fulop (D), a leader of the state's anti-corruption movement, told HuffPost. "It's not like New Jersey is corruption-free."

CPI criticized New Jersey, citing a need to overhaul the appeal process for records-access denials. New Jersey activists told HuffPost that the other issue is that many of the laws do not apply to local government.

Witkin said that he expects the report to have an impact in the states that ranked lower on the list, but said he believes the small government philosophy will hurt. In North Dakota, the cited small government account as the reason why the state rejected the creation of an ethics commission, a similar argument used in Wyoming.

North Dakota state Rep. Corey Mock (D-Grand Forks), the sponsor of the ill-fated ethics law, told HuffPost that while he understands the argument that his state is almost one large town, there have been several incidents in recent years that he said called for a watchdog. These include one legislator being arrested twice for domestic abuse and another not paying her taxes.

"An ethics commission could have stepped in," Mock said. "That never happened."

New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) who said she's lost count of how many of her colleagues have been arrested in her two decades in office, said whether it's New Jersey or other states, it's more than laws and watchdogs.

"You can say we did a good job in hauling off the bad guys, but you have to wonder what kind of climate produced them all," she said.

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