Secrecy, corruption and conflicts of interest pervade state governments

Go Lean Commentary

Economics, security and governance is presented in the book Go Lean … Caribbean as the “three-fold cord” for societal harmony; for any society anywhere. The Caribbean wants that societal harmony; we must therefore work to optimize all these three engines. But this is easier said than done. This heavy-lifting is described in the book as both an art and a science.

The focus in this commentary is on the societal engine of governance; previously, there was a series on economics and one on security lessons. This commentary focuses on assuaging the “abuse of power”. The Go Lean book posits that verily, bad actors will always emerge to exploit successful engines (in economics and governance). Therefore the checks-and-balances must be proactively embedded in any organizational structure so as to minimize the actuality of abuses by authority figures.

CU Blog - Secrecy, corruption and conflicts of interest pervade state governments - Photo 3The American experience is important for this consideration. There is a lesson in governance here in examining the US; more exactly, examining the output from the Center for Public Integrity (CPI); see Appendix A below. This Non-Governmental Organization specifically evaluates/measures government misbehavior, structures and systems of oversight. It is an American NGO with an American focus; but we now need to focus on the Caribbean, measuring “best-practices” with this same American yardstick.

Warning!!! This is a LONG commentary … with the Appendices. Considering the grave subject matter; this length is unavoidable.

The work of the CPI is relevant in our consideration of the Caribbean. For the 30 Caribbean member-states, two are American territories (Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands), and a few member-states use the US Dollar as their official currency (British Virgin Islands, the Turks & Caicos Islands and the Dutch Caribbean Territories of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba). This is one reason why this review is important; the other, and most important reason is that our Caribbean people deserve the best-of-the-best of governmental processes. Power corrupts … everyone … everywhere.

The book Go Lean…Caribbean serves as a roadmap for the introduction and implementation of the technocratic Caribbean Union Trade Federation (CU) to elevate the economic, security and governance engines of the region’s 30 member-states. The roadmap features these 3 prime directives:

  • Optimization of the economic engines in order to grow the regional economy to $800 Billion & create 2.2 million new jobs.
  • Establishment of a security apparatus – with oversight over economic crimes and prosecutorial power for public officials – to protect the resultant economic engines.
  • Improvement of Caribbean governance to support these engines, including ranking and ratings of the mechanics of oversight.

The roadmap covers a 5 year period in which the societal engines will be optimized. The region’s GDP should increase from $278 Billion to $800 Billion. With this success, there will be a lot of opportunities for government administrators to acquire and wield power. The roadmap fully expects these corrupting effects of power to emerge in the Caribbean, as they have emerged in the US, according to the featured news article below (Appendix D):

  • Secret Deal-making – (S)
  • Corruption – (C)
  • Conflicts of Interest – (I)

Thusly, the CU/Go Lean roadmap embeds the required checks-and-balances from the outset to assuage these threats. This commentary considers the in-depth  examination of the member-state governments in the US – by the Center for Public Integrity – and then proceeds with a rating/ranking of those 50 states using these 13 categories:

  • Public Access to Information (S)
  • Political Financing (I)
  • Electoral Oversight (C)
  • Executive Accountability (I)
  • Legislative Accountability (I)
  • Judicial Accountability (I)
  • State Budget Processes (S)
  • State Civil Service Management  (I)
  • Procurement (C)
  • Internal Auditing (S)
  • Lobbying Disclosure (I)
  • Ethics Enforcement Agencies (C)
  • State Pension Fund Management (C)

Consider here, the actual VIDEO and news article (in Appendix D below) as reported in the national daily newspaper USA Today, published on November 9, 2015:

VIDEO: How corrupt is your state? –

An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity ranked all 50 states based on how ‘corrupt’ they were. The investigation looked at data in 13 different categories. USA TODAY

Well done, CPI. This assessment of the integrity status of the 50 American state governments is a great check-and-balance on those governmental powers.

See the overall rank of the 50 US states in Appendix B below and the separate ranking for each of the 13 criteria at this web address The grade of “C” is the highest grade – not good – but it is a benchmark; all the other states did even worse. The state that ranks the highest on the list is Alaska; in contrast, the state with the lowest score/rank is Michigan. (The principal city and economic engine in Michigan is Detroit. The publishers of the book Go Lean…Caribbean are here in Detroit to “observe and report” the turn-around and rebirth of the once-great-but-now-distressed City of Detroit and its metropolitan area).

The assertion of the Go Lean book is that the Caribbean region can benefit from this Good Governance objective in the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) mission. The Caribbean region can do the same as the CPI does for the US. The states are not accountable to the CPI; but they do have to answer to “the people”. Underlying to the CPI mission, is the tactic of “Freedom of Information” embedded in State and Federal laws. They are first and foremost a journalistic organization; they are an NGO, they do not possess any sovereignty or prosecutorial powers.

The model of the Caribbean Union Trade Federation (CU) is similar, in that the CU will not possess sovereignty over its member-states. (The CU treaty does vest prosecutorial and accountability powers to CU entities for corruption matters related to CU federal funds). In general, the CU is limited to the same “ratings and ranking” tools as the CPI. So we must proactively and reactively address public corruption. But doing so judiciously and with proper regard for personal sacrifice and volunteerism.

The Go Lean roadmap calls on citizens of the Caribbean member-states to lean-in to the empowerments of this elevation plan. This will require whole-souled commitments and sacrifice on the part of the people; a determination to pursue the needs of the public over the needs of just one person; many times at great sacrifice. This is good! To reach the goals of the community, or an entire nation, there must be a willingness to sacrifice – blood, sweat and tears. This is the community ethos – spirit that drives the people – that is necessary for the pursuit of the Greater Good as opposed to personal gains.

But … there is a need for balance here.

We want to invite public participation, but we do not want people to come to public service looking to profit themselves. On the one hand, we do not want to discourage volunteerism and National Sacrifice with excessive disclosures (see Bahamian satirical song in Appendix C lambasting the resistance when introducing a financial disclosure law), while on the other hand, we want to check and double-check the integrity in the governing process. We must ensure Good Governance.

That perfect balance is possible! The Center for Public Integrity provides its own roadmap for doing so in the US. For this, they are a role model for the Caribbean effort, the CU/Go Lean roadmap. This point was strongly urged in the Go Lean book, in the opening Declaration of Interdependence (Pages 10 & 12) with these pronouncements:

Preamble:  … While our rights to exercise good governance and promote a more perfect society are the natural assumptions among the powers of the earth, no one other than ourselves can be held accountable for our failure to succeed if we do not try to promote the opportunities that a democratic society fosters.
As the history of our region and the oppression, suppression and repression of its indigenous people is duly documented, there is no one alive who can be held accountable for the prior actions, and so we must put aside the shackles of systems of repression to instead formulate efficient and effective systems to steer our own destiny.

xi.  Whereas all men are entitled to the benefits of good governance in a free society, “new guards” must be enacted to dissuade the emergence of incompetence, corruption,
nepotism and cronyism at the peril of the people’s best interest. The Federation must guarantee the executions of a social contract between government and the governed.

xii. Whereas the legacy in recent times in individual states may be that of ineffectual governance with no redress to higher authority, the accedence of this Federation will ensure accountability and escalation of the human and civil rights of the people for good governance, justice assurances, due process and the rule of law. As such, any threats of a “failed state” status for any member state must enact emergency measures on behalf of the Federation to protect the human, civil and property rights of the citizens, residents, allies, trading partners, and visitors of the affected member state and the Federation as a whole.

The Go Lean book details all the community ethos to ensure the right attitudes and practices among those that submit to serve and protect Caribbean communities. Plus the book identifies the strategies, tactics, implementations and advocacies to ensure public integrity for the Caribbean region governing process:

Economic Principle – Economic Systems Influence Individual Choices Page 21
Community Ethos – Security Principle – Privacy –vs- Public Protection Page 23
Community Ethos – Security Principle – Whistleblower Protection Page 23
Community Ethos – Security Principle – Witness Security & Protection Page 23
Community Ethos – Security Principle – Intelligence Gathering Page 23
Community Ethos – Security Principle – Light Up the Dark Places – Openness Page 23
Community Ethos – Governing Principle – Minority Equalization Page 24
Community Ethos – Governing Principle – Cooperatives and NGO’s Page 25
Community Ethos – Ways to Manage Reconciliations – Case Study of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Page 34
Community Ethos – Ways to Improve Sharing – Intelligence Gathering Page 35
Community Ethos – Ways to Impact the Greater Good Page 37
Tactical – Confederating a Non-Sovereign Union Page 63
Tactical – Fostering a Technocracy Page 64
Tactical – Separation of Powers – Justice Department – District Attorneys with Jurisdiction for Public Integrity cases. Page 77
Tactical – Separation of Powers – Justice Department – CariPol – Policing the Police Page 77
Tactical – Separation of Powers – Federal Courts – Truth and Reconciliation Commissions Page 90
Implementation – Assemble “Organs” – including Regional Courts and Justice Institutions Page 96
Implementation – Start-up Security Initiatives Page 103
Planning – Ways to Make the Caribbean Better Page 131
Planning – Ways to Improve Failed-State Indices – Accountability of Governing Officials Page 134
Planning – Lessons from the US Constitution – Checks and Balances Page 145
Advocacy – Ways to Grow the Economy Page 151
Advocacy – Ways to Improve Governance – Right to Good Governance Page 168
Advocacy – Ways to Better Manage the Social Contract Page 170
Advocacy – Ways to Impact Justice – including White Collar & Government Integrity Page 177
Advocacy – Ways to Improve Intelligence Gathering/Analysis Page 182
Advocacy – Ways to Improve Communications – Long Form Journalism and Public Broadcasting Page 186
Advocacy – Ways to Impact Wall Street – Ensure Corporate Governance Page 200
Advocacy – Ways to Impact the Prison Industrial Complex – Learn from Past & Ensure Corporate Governance Page 211
Advocacy – Ways to Protect Human Rights – Justice Focus and Good Governance Page 220
Appendix – Lessons Learned in Open Government – Floating the Trinidad & Tobago Dollar (1993) Page 316

Other subjects related to public integrity in the region (or the perception of deficient integrity) have been blogged in other Go Lean…Caribbean commentaries, as sampled here: Ten Puerto Rico Police Accused of Corruption and Criminal Network American Defects: Inventory of Crony-Capitalism Whistleblower Edward Snowden – One Person Making a Difference In Search Of The Red Cross’ $500 Million In Haiti Relief Mitigating the Eventual ‘Abuse of Power’ Corrupt Police: A Picture is worth a thousand words; a video, a million US Territories – Between a ‘rock and a hard place’ Probe of Ferguson-Missouri finds bias from cops, courts Concerns about ‘Citizenship By Investment Programs’ No Fear of Failure – Case Study: Bahamasair Justice Strategy: Special Prosecutors … et al Dominican Republic, Perception of Corruption Welcoming the Dreaded ‘Plutocracy’ Zuckerberg’s $100 Million for Newark’s Schools was a waste How Nigeria’s economy grew by 89% overnight Barbados Central Bank records $3.7m loss in 2013 Why are Jamaica’s reforms failing?

The goal of the Go Lean roadmap is to make the Caribbean homeland, a better place to live, work and play. We must lower the “push” factors that cause our citizens to flee their homeland for foreign (North American and European) shores. Among the many reasons people emigrate is the ineffectiveness of their homeland’s local government. We must therefore improve the governing process.

We must do better!

We know that “bad actors” will emerge, even in government institutions, so we must be “on guard” against corruptive threats, from internal (i.e. audits) and external (i.e. lobbyists) origins. We must maintain transparency, accountability, and constant commitments to due-process and the rule-of-law.

The Go Lean roadmap calls for the engagement and participation of everyone, the people (citizens), institutions and government officials alike. We encouraged all with benevolent motives to lean-in to this roadmap, to get involved, get busy and get going. But we caution all with malevolent motives – we will be watching, listening, checking and double-checking.

Our Caribbean subjects deserve only the best … for a change.  🙂

Download the book Go Lean … Caribbean – now!


Appendix ACenter for Public Integrity

The CPI is an American nonprofit investigative journalism organization whose stated mission is “to reveal abuses of power, corruption and dereliction of duty by powerful public and private institutions in order to cause them to operate with honesty, integrity, accountability and to put the public interest first.”[1] With over 50 staff members, CPI is one of the largest nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative centers in America.[2] It won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.[3]

CPI describes itself as an organization that is “nonpartisan and does no advocacy work.”[4] CPI has been characterized as “progressive”[5] “nonpartisan,”[6] “independent,”[7] and a “liberal group.”[8][9]

CPI releases its reports via its web site to media outlets throughout the U.S. and around the globe. In 2004, CPI’s The Buying of the President book was on the New York Times bestseller list for three months.[10]



Appendix BGrades for all 50 states on corruption

In state after state, legislators and agency officials engage in [secrecy, corruption and] conflicts of interest.  Here is the list of overall scores in ranking Good-to-Bad-to-Worse-to-Detroit (Michigan):

State Score Rank
Alaska C


California C-


Connecticut C-


Hawaii D+


Rhode Island D+


Ohio D+


Alabama D+


Kentucky D+


Nebraska D+


Indiana D-


Iowa D+


Massachusetts D+


Washington D+


Colorado D+


Illinois D+


Tennessee D


Virginia D


West Virginia D


North Carolina D


New Jersey D


Wisconsin D


Montana D


Arizona D


Maryland D


Georgia D-


Utah D-


Idaho D-


Missouri D-


Minnesota D-


Florida D-


New York D-


Arkansas D-


Mississippi D-


New Hampshire D-


New Mexico D-


South Carolina D-


North Dakota D-


Texas D-


Vermont D-


Oklahoma F


Louisiana F


Kansas F


Maine F


Oregon F


Pennsylvania F


Nevada F


South Dakota F


Delaware F


Wyoming F


Michigan F



Appendix C VIDEO-AUDIOEddie Minnis – Show and Tell –

Uploaded on Jun 16, 2011 – Artist: Eddie Minnis Song: Show & Tell Album: Greatest Hits!


Appendix D – News Article Title: Secrecy, corruption and conflicts of interest pervade state governments
(Source: retrieved November 11, 2015)
By: Special Contributor – Nicholas Kusnetz, Center for Public Integrity

CU Blog - Secrecy, corruption and conflicts of interest pervade state governments - Photo 1In November 2014, Arkansas voters approved a ballot measure that, among other changes, barred the state’s elected officials from accepting lobbyists’ gifts. That hasn’t stopped influence peddlers from continuing to provide meals to lawmakers at the luxurious Capital Hotel or in top Little Rock eateries  such as the Brave New Restaurant; the prohibition does not apply to “food or drink available at a planned activity to which a specific governmental body is invited,” so lobbyists can buy meals as long as they invite an entire legislative committee.

Such loopholes are a common part of statehouse culture nationwide, according to the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. The comprehensive probe found that in state after state, open records laws are laced with exemptions, and part-time legislators and agency officials engage in glaring conflicts of interests and cozy relationships with lobbyists while feckless, understaffed watchdogs struggle to enforce laws as porous as honeycombs.

Take the Missouri lawmaker who introduced a bill this year — which passed despite a veto by the governor — to prohibit cities from banning plastic bags at grocery stores. The state representative cited concern for shoppers, but he also happens to be state director of the Missouri Grocers Association and is one of several lawmakers in the state who pushed bills that synced with their private interests.

Or the lobbyist who, despite a $50 cap on gifts to Idaho state lawmakers, spent $2,250 in 2013 to host a state senator and his wife at the annual Governors Cup charity golf tournament in Sun Valley; the prohibition does not apply to such lobbying largess as long as the money is not spent “in return for action” on a particular bill.

In Delaware, the Public Integrity Commission, which oversees lobbying and ethics laws for the executive branch there, has just two full-time employees. A 2013 report by a special state prosecutor found that the agency was unable “to undertake any serious inquiry or investigation into potential wrongdoing.”

And in New Mexico, lawmakers passed a resolution in 2013 declaring that their emails are exempt from public records laws — a rule change that did not require the governor’s signature.

These are among the practices illuminated by the State Integrity Investigation, which measured hundreds of variables to compile transparency and accountability grades for all 50 states. The best grade in the nation, which went to Alaska, is just a C. Only two others earned better than a D+; 11 states received failing grades. The results may be deflating to the two-thirds of Americans who, according to a recent poll,  look to the states for policy solutions as gridlock and partisanship has overtaken Washington.

The top of the pack includes bastions of liberal government, including California (ranked 2nd with a C), and states notorious for corrupt pasts (Connecticut, 3rd with a C-, and Rhode Island, 5th with a D+). In those New England states, scandals led to significant changes and relatively robust ethics laws, even if dubious dealings linger in the halls of government. The bottom includes many Western states that champion limited government, such as Nevada, South Dakota and Wyoming, but also others, such as Maine, Delaware and dead-last Michigan, that have not adopted the types of ethics and open records laws common in many other states.

The results are “disappointing but not surprising,” said Paula A. Franzese, an expert in state and local government ethics at Seton Hall University School of Law and former chairwoman of the New Jersey State Ethics Commission. Franzese said that as many states struggle financially, ethics oversight is among the last issues to receive funding. “It’s not the sort of issue that commands voters,” she said.

Aside from a few exceptions, there has been little progress on these issues since the State Integrity Investigation was first carried out in 2012. In fact, most scores have dropped since then, though some of that is attributable to changes made to improve and update the project and its methodology.

Since State Integrity’s first go-round, at least 12 states have seen their legislative leaders or top Cabinet-level officials charged, convicted or resign as a result of ethics or corruption-related scandal. Five House or Assembly leaders have fallen. No state has outdone New York, where 14 lawmakers have left office since the beginning of 2012 because of ethical or criminal issues, according to a count by Citizens Union, an advocacy group. That does not include the former leaders of both the Assembly and the Senate, who were charged in unrelated corruption schemes this year but remain in office while they await trial.

New York is not remarkable, however, in at least one regard: Only one of those 14 lawmakers has been sanctioned by the state’s ethics commission.


When first conducted in 2011-2012, the State Integrity Investigation was an unprecedented look at the systems that state governments use to prevent corruption and expose it when it does occur. Unlike many other examinations of the issue, the project does not attempt to measure corruption itself. The 2015 grades are based on 245 questions that ask about key indicators of transparency and accountability, looking not only at what the laws say, but also how well they’re enforced or implemented. The “indicators” are divided into 13 categories: public access to information, political financing, electoral oversight, executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, state budget processes, state civil service management, procurement, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, state pension fund management and ethics enforcement agencies.

Experienced journalists in each state undertook exhaustive research and reporting to score each of the questions, which ask, for example, whether lawmakers are required to file financial interest disclosures and whether they are complete and detailed. The results are both intuitive — an F for New York’s “three men in a room” budget process — and surprising — Illinois earned the best grade in the nation for its procurement practices. Altogether, the project presents a comprehensive look at transparency, accountability and ethics in state government. It’s not a pretty picture.


Overall, states scored notably worse in this second round. Some of that decline is because of changes to the project, such as the addition of questions asking about “open data” policies, which call on governments to publish information online in formats that are easy to download and analyze. The drop also reflects moves toward greater secrecy in some states.

“Across the board, accessing government has always been, but is increasingly, a barrier to people from every reform angle,” said Jenny Rose Flanagan, vice president for state operations at Common Cause, a national advocacy group with chapters in most states.

CU Blog - Secrecy, corruption and conflicts of interest pervade state governments - Photo 2No state saw its score fall further than New Jersey, which  earned a B+, the best score in the nation, in 2012 — shocking just about anyone familiar with the state’s politics — thanks to tough ethics and anti-corruption laws that had been passed over the previous decade in response to a series of scandals.

None of that has changed. But journalists, advocates and academics have accused the Christie administration of fighting and delaying potentially damaging public records requests and meddling in the affairs of the State Ethics Commission. That’s on top of Bridgegate, the sprawling scandal that began as a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge but has led to the indictments  of one of the governor’s aides and two of his appointees — one of whom pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges — and even to the resignations of top executives at United Airlines.

Admittedly, it’s not all doom and gloom. Iowa created an independent board with authority to mediate disputes when agencies reject public records requests. Gov. Terry Branstad cited the state’s previous grade from the center when he signed the bill, and the move helped catapult Iowa to first in the nation in the category for access to information, with a C- grade (Iowa’s overall score actually dropped modestly).

In Georgia, good government groups latched on to the state’s worst-in-the-nation rank in 2012 to amplify their ongoing push for changes. The result was a modest law the following year that created a $75 cap on the value of lobbyists’ gifts to public officials. The change helped boost the state’s score in the category of legislative accountability to a C-, sixth-best in the nation.

Perhaps the most dramatic changes came in Virginia, where scandal engulfed the administration of outgoing Gov. Robert McDonnell in 2013 after it emerged that he and his family had accepted more than $170,000 in loans and gifts, much of it undisclosed, from a Virginia businessman. McDonnell and his wife were later convicted on federal corruption charges, but the case underscored the state’s woefully lax ethics laws and oversight regime; Virginia received an overall F grade in 2012. At the time, there was no limit on the value of gifts that public officials could accept, and they were not required to disclose gifts to their immediate family, a clause that McDonnell grasped at to argue that he had complied with state laws. (Appeals of the McDonnells’ convictions are pending.)

Over the next two years, newly elected Gov. Terry McAuliffe and lawmakers passed a series of executive actions and laws that led in 2015 to a $100 cap on gifts to public officials from lobbyists and people seeking state business. They  created an ethics council that will advise lawmakers but will not have the power to issue sanctions. Advocates for ethics reform have said the changes, though significant, fall far short of what’s needed, particularly the creation of an ethics commission with enforcement powers.

States continued to score relatively well in the categories for auditing practices — 29 earned B- or better — and for budget transparency — 16 got a B- or above. (The category measures whether the budget process is transparent, with sufficient checks and balances, not whether it’s well-managed).

In Idaho, for example, which earned an A and the second best score for its budget process, the public is free to watch the Legislature’s joint budget committee meetings. Those not able to make it to Boise can watch by streaming video. Citizens can provide input during hearings and can view the full budget bill online.

New York earned the top score for its auditing practices — a B+ — because of its robustly funded state comptroller’s office, which is headed by an elected official who is largely protected from interference by the governor or Legislature. The office issues an annual report, which is publicly available, and has shown little hesitation to go after state agencies, such as in a recent audit that identified $500 million in waste in the state’s Medicaid program.

Unfortunately, such bright spots are the exceptions.


In 2013, George LeVines submitted a request for records to the Massachusetts State Police, asking for controlled substance seizure reports at state prisons dating back seven years. LeVines, who at the time was assistant editor at Muckrock, a news website and records-request repository, soon received a response from the agency saying he could have copies of the reports, but they would cost him $130,000. Though LeVines is quick to admit that his request was extremely broad, the figure shocked him nonetheless.

“I wouldn’t have ever expected getting that just scot-free, that does cost money,” he said. But $130,000? “It’s insane.”

The cost was prohibitive, and LeVines withdrew his request. Massachusetts State Police have become a notorious steel trap of information — they’ve charged tens of thousands of dollars or even, in one case, $2.7 million to produce documents — and were awarded this year with the tongue-in-cheek Golden Padlock award by a national journalism organization, which each year “honors” an agency or public official for their “abiding commitment to secrecy and impressive skill in information suppression.”

Dave Procopio, a spokesman for the State Police, said in an email that the department is committed to transparency but that its records are laced with sensitive information that’s exempt from disclosure and that reviewing the material is time-consuming and expensive. “While we most certainly agree that the public has a right to information not legally exempt from disclosure,” he wrote, “we will not cut corners for the purpose of expediency or economy if doing so means that private personal, medi[c]al, or criminal history information is inappropriately released.”

It’s not just the police. Both the Legislature and the judicial branch are at least partly exempt from Massachusetts’ public records law. Governors have cited a state Supreme Court ruling to argue that they, too, are exempt, though chief executives often comply with requests anyway. A review by The Boston Globe found that the secretary of State’s office, the first line of appeal for rejected requests, had ruled in favor of those seeking records in only one in five cases. Massachusetts earned an F in the category for public access to information. So did 43 other states, making this the worst-performing category in the State Integrity Investigation.

Though every state in the nation has open records and meetings laws, they’re typically shot through with holes and exemptions and usually have essentially no enforcement mechanisms, beyond the court system, when agencies refuse to comply. In most states, at least one entire branch of government or agency claims exemptions from the laws. Many agencies routinely fail to explain why they they’ve denied requests. Public officials charge excessive fees to discourage requestors. In the vast majority of states, citizens are unable to quickly and affordably resolve appeals when their records are denied. Only one state — Missouri — received a perfect score on a question asking whether citizens actually receive responses to their requests swiftly and at reasonable cost.

“We’re seeing increased secrecy throughout the country at the state and federal level,” said David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism and an expert on open records laws. He said substantial research shows that the nation’s open records laws have been poked and prodded to include a sprawling list of exemptions and impediments and that public officials increasingly use those statutes to deny access to records. “It’s getting worse every year,” he said.

After a series of shootings by police officers in New Mexico, the Santa Fe New Mexican published a report about controversial changes made to the state-run training academy. When a reporter requested copies of the new curriculum, the program’s director refused, saying, “I’ll burn them before you get them.”

In January, The Wichita Eagle reported that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget director had used his private email address to send details of a proposed budget to the private email accounts of fellow staff members and to a pair of lobbyists. He later said he did so only because he and the rest of the staff were home for the holidays. In May, Brownback acknowledged that he, too, used a private email account to communicate with staff, meaning his correspondence was not subject to the state’s public records laws. A state council is studying how to close the loophole. Court cases in California are examining a similar question.

Cuillier said that in most states, courts or others have determined that discussions of public business are subject to disclosure, no matter whether the email or phone used was public or private. But the debate is indicative of a larger problem, and it reveals public records laws as the crazy old uncle of government statutes: toothless, antiquated appendages of a bygone era.


Governments write ethics laws for a reason, presumably. Public officials can’t always be trusted to do the right thing; we need laws to make sure they do. The trouble is, a law is only as good as its enforcement, and the entities responsible for overseeing ethics are often impotent and ineffective.

In many states, a complex mix of legislative committees, stand-alone commissions and law enforcement agencies police the ethics laws. More often than not, the State Integrity Investigation shows, those entities are underfunded, subject to political interference or are simply unable or unwilling to initiate investigations and issue sanctions when rules are broken. Or at least that’s as far as the public can tell: Many of these bodies operate largely in secret.

The Tennessee Ethics Commission, for example, rose in 2006 out of the ashes of an FBI bribery probe that had burned four state lawmakers. In its decade of operation, the commission has never issued a penalty as a result of an ethics complaint against a public official (it did issue one to a lobbyist). That may seem surprising, but the dearth of actions is impossible to assess because the complaints become public only if four of six commissioners decide they warrant investigation. Of 17 complaints received in 2013 and 2014, only two are public.

“There just haven’t been that many valid complaints alleging wrongdoing,” said Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, which includes the commission.

In 2013, in a case that did become public, the commission decided against issuing a fine to a powerful lobbyist and former adviser to Gov. Bill Haslam who had failed to disclose that he’d lobbied on behalf of a mining company  seeking a state contract. The lobbyist maintained that his failure was simply an oversight, and only one commissioner voted to issue a penalty.

In Kansas, staff shortages mean the state’s Governmental Ethics Commission is unable to fully audit lawmakers’ financial disclosures, according to Executive Director Carol Williams. “We would love to be able to do more comprehensive audits,” Williams told the investigation’s Kansas reporter. Instead, she said, all her staff can do is make sure officials are filling out the forms. “Whether they are correct or not, we don’t know.” Only two states initiate comprehensive, independent audits of lawmakers’ asset disclosures on an annual basis.

The State Integrity Investigation found that in two-thirds of all states, ethics agencies or committees routinely fail to initiate investigations or impose sanctions when necessary, often because they’re unable to do so without first receiving a complaint.

“Many of these laws are out of date. They need to be revised,” said Robert Stern, who spent  decades as president of the Center for Governmental Studies, which worked with local and state governments to improve ethics, campaign-finance and lobbying laws until it shut in 2011. Stern, who is helping to write a ballot initiative that would update California’s ethics statutes, said that although he thinks the State Integrity Investigation grades are unrealistically harsh, they do reflect the fact that state lawmakers have neglected their responsibilities when it comes to ethics and transparency. “It’s very, very difficult for legislatures to focus on these things and improve them because they don’t want these laws, they don’t want to enforce them, and they don’t want to fund the people enforcing them.”

In three in five states, the project found, ethics entities are inadequately funded, causing staff to be overloaded with work and occasionally forcing them to delay investigations.

The Oklahoma Ethics Commission is charged with overseeing ethics laws for the executive and legislative branches, lobbying activity and campaign finance. This year, the commission operated on a budget of $1 million. In 2014, the non-profit news site Oklahoma Watch reported that the commission had collected only 40% of all the late-filing penalties it had assessed to candidates, committees and other groups since it was created in 1990. Part of that failure was the result of a challenge to the commission’s rules, but Executive Director Lee Slater said much of it was simply due to a lack of resources.

“Until about a month ago, we had five employees in this office,” Slater said. “We’ve now got six. Try to do it with six employees.” Slater said the commission this year began collecting all fees it is owed, thanks to the sixth employee — whose salary is financed with fees — and new rules that clarify its authority. He said the agency simply does not have enough money to do what it ought to. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we do everything we should,” he said. “But I will tell you that we do the best that we can, whatever that is.”

Slater said he’s been told to expect a cut of 5% to 20% to the commission’s appropriations next year ($775,000 of the commission’s budget comes from appropriations.)

Oklahoma is hardly an outlier. “They don’t have the resources,” Stern said, speaking of similar agencies across the country. “That’s the problem.”


Not long ago, journalists and citizen watchdogs were thrilled to get access to any type of information online. Standards have changed quickly, and many have come to expect government to not just publish data online but to do so in “open data” formats that allow users to download and analyze the information.

“The great benefit you get from making data available digitally is that it can then be very easily reused,” said Emily Shaw, deputy policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, an advocacy group. (Global Integrity consulted with the Sunlight Foundation when writing the open data questions for this project.)

Shaw said local governments are moving more aggressively than states toward putting data online in malleable formats. Only nine states have adopted open data measures, according to the Sunlight Foundation, some of which do little more than create an advisory panel to study the issue.

The 2015 State Integrity Investigation included questions in each category asking whether governments are meeting open data principles. The answer was almost always no. More than anything, these scores were responsible for dragging down the grades since the first round of the project.

Though open data principles are relatively new, the poor performance on these questions is indicative of the project’s findings as a whole. “If we really wanted to do it right, we’d just scrap it all and start from scratch,” said Cuillier of the University of Arizona, speaking of the broken state of open records and accessibility laws. That clearly is not going to happen, he said, so “we’re going to continue to have laws that are archaic and tinkered with, and usually in the wrong direction.”

This article draws on reporting from State Integrity Investigation reporters in all 50 states.


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