Lord help us: 31 states sleazier than Pennsylvania

    It barely made news last week when another once-powerful Pennsylvania legislator agreed to plead guilty to corruption charges — in this case Scranton Democrat Robert Mellow, who was a leader in the State Senate not so many years ago.

    Read to the bottom of the report in the Scranton Times, and you’ll see passing mention of a complaint by citizen activist Gene Stilp that Mellow used $738,000 in campaign funds to pay for his legal defense. Worse, taxpayers have paid millions to defend sitting legislators while they fought criminal and ethics investigations.

    Just ask John Contino, executive director of the State Ethics Commission.

    “I looked at the bills in relation to an ethics investigation that I had ongoing, and there were well over a million dollars spent to private lawyers to fight the Ethics Commission’s investigation of a particular member of the General Assembly,” Contino told me last week. “And that’s not unusual.”

    If this kind of stuff makes your blood boil, you’ll be interested in the State Integrity Investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International. These organizations got funding to spend some serious time and money looking into each of the 50 states’ laws and practices in areas of ethics and accountability.

    They did this because:

    (1) The way our country runs, state governments have enormous power over our lives.

    (2) We don’t pay enough attention to state officials. National politics are sexier, and local officials are only a bus token away. The media notice our disinterest in state capitols, and statehouse reporters have declined by a third over the past decade.

    (3) For a variety of reasons, including (2) above, state officials tend to be more susceptible to corruption than local or national politicians.

    The results of the State Integrity Investigation, published today, include numerical grades and rankings of the states’ vulnerability to corruption, and a rich trove of very specific information about each states’ strengths and weaknesses.

    I hope you’re sitting down when I tell you that New Jersey ranked best in the country at sleaze-prevention. Almost as surprising to me is that Pennsylvania ranked 19th, though it scored only a C-minus (states were not graded on a curve, so the class did poorly as a whole). I thought Delaware would do better than its ranking in the middle of the pack, but read our coverage on the Delaware page, and it will make sense.

    We and other public media organizations around the country are exploring the findings today and plan follow-up stories on the states in our region.

    Spend some time at the State Integrity Investigation site, and sign up for Facebook and Twitter updates. What you don’t know about state government can hurt you.

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