For a While Now, I’ve Posed the Question: “Is Nebraska the Most Corrupt State in the Country?” Sunday, a New York Times Columnist Weighed in + Wrote Cluelessly about Cornhusker Country. Sorry. But That’s ‘The Truth.’

May 13, 2013

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OP-ED COLUMNISTIs Yours More Corrupt Than Mine?

Is Yours More Corrupt Than Mine?

Tim Lahan
By 
Published: May 11, 2013 301 Comments

LET’S talk about what makes a delinquent state legislature. I know it’s been on your mind.

The Conversation

Conversation

David Brooks and Gail Collins talk between columns.

Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Gail Collins

Anthony Lanzilote for The New York Times

New York State Senator John Sampson (center in red tie) leaves Brooklyn Federal Court after being arraigned on corruption charges.

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The newest political trend in New York involves corrupt state legislators attempting to curry favor with federal prosecutors by wearing wires to work. Perhaps there have been worse fads. There was a time, not long ago, when Assembly members could punch in early in the day, leave to play golf and still be recorded as voting “yes” on every single bill that hit the floor.

Officials recently revealed that a 74-year-old senator named Shirley Huntley secretly recorded assorted pols who she invited over for a chat while claiming to be laid up with a broken ankle. She was sentenced to prison for embezzlement anyway, but not before putting an entirely new spin on the concept of visiting the sick.

There was also a state assemblyman who was wired up for virtually his entire two-term career, before resigning recently to pursue a new life as a defendant in a perjury case.

All of this raises some interesting questions. Is everybody in Albany now operating under the presumption that everything they say is being secretly recorded for the F.B.I.? Does that improve the legislative ethos or just lead to a lot of uncomfortable breaks in conversation?

Also, is New York’s State Legislature the most corrupt in the country? At last count we had 32 state officials get into deep trouble over the last few years, including four former Senate majority or minority leaders. The offenses ranged from taking bribes to throwing coffee in the face of a staff member. The last was not actually a corruption matter, but it was definitely behavior we wish to discourage.

It’s quite a record, but there are still other states in contention.

“We have three people in the State Legislature facing trial. Four of the last seven governors have gone to jail,” said Andy Shaw of Illinois’ Better Government Association. “And we’re a fiscal train wreck.”

That four-of-the-last-seven-governors record is really hard to argue with. New York, of course, had the disastrous resignation of Eliot Spitzer. But that was about sex. Sex scandals, while embarrassing, are far less depressing than financial corruption. I would way rather have an important elected official who patronized prostitutes than one who spent $60,000 of the taxpayers’ money on sushi and lobster. Although in New York we have recently had both.

STILL, we’re not alone. “We used to say — thank God for Illinois,” said Gerald Benjamin, a former Albany hand who is now an executive at the State University of New York in New Paltz.

And then there was the Alabama bingo debacle and the Arizona Fiesta Bowl scandal. Louisiana showed up at the top of a study of political corruption that calculated the number of convictions per capita. Georgia came out as worst on a corruption risk report from the State Integrity Investigation, which measured factors like accountability, transparency and ethics enforcement.

New Jersey got the best grade.

“There was an audible gasp across the entire state,” said Debbie Walsh of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.

“It was counterintuitive for us as well,” said Gordon Witkin, the managing editor at the Center for Public Integrity. Witkin’s theory is that New Jersey got to be good by being bad. “Where there has been a major, major scandal, that was the catalyst for very specific reform.”

Well, New Jersey has had its problems. Over the last decade there was Gov. James McGreevey’s affair with the male Israeli poet. (The state could have accepted the gay part, and the adultery part, if only McGreevey had not decided to prove his love by making the poet head of homeland security.) That was followed by a slew of political indictments, after which the Legislature did end some of its most notorious ethics loopholes. But it’s still, you know, New Jersey.

It’s at this point in every rant about state legislators that we stop to point out that most of them are honest, and some downright heroic. Really, just try spending a good chunk of your life as a reformer in the New York State Senate. See how you like it.

Also, some entire state legislatures are both honest and effective. People speak highly of the one in Nebraska. (It’s unicameral!) I once covered the Connecticut Legislature, where people took their jobs very seriously, holding endless public hearings on every bill and then having long, earnest debates in which the outcome was not preordained. But that was way back in the 1970s, when Joseph Lieberman was the Senate majority leader, and even at that early age was being accused by the liberals of selling out.

At the time, the Connecticut lawmakers did not think they were all that great. What they wanted, more than anything else, was to be like New York. Yes! Legislators in New York, they kept noting, got serious salaries, and staff, and offices. In Connecticut you were lucky if they gave you a desk.

Reformers call this the drive for professionalization. I’m sure it helps give a good legislature more juice, but when one is off track, it just gives everybody more places to be ineffective. When I first went to Albany, I walked through a mall of offices so grand it felt like something out of the chariot scene in “Ben Hur.” Yet the rank-and-file members had nothing to do in their expansive quarters but send press releases to their constituents. There were almost never any public hearings on anything. And the debates were conducted for the benefit of those people on the golf course.

What does make a difference? I think it’s just that some states have a good political culture. Generally, the good ones are places where the lawmakers have serious work to do beyond passing thick mystery bills that come thonking down from the governor’s office minutes before the voting begins. States with two real, functioning political parties that feel at least a modest obligation to work together.

“There’s a thing down here called the Virginia Way — being as collaborative and bipartisan as possible,” said Dan Palazzolo, a professor of political science at the University of Richmond.

There’s a thing up in Albany called “three guys in a room,” in which all the serious decisions are made behind closed doors, by the Assembly speaker, the Senate majority leader and the governor. Someday, I believe, New York may evolve to the point where there will be two guys and a woman in the room. But that may be the most we can expect.

The other day in Albany, the Republicans decided to take the unusual step of having a public hearing on a campaign financing bill that they opposed. When supporters of the bill showed up to testify, the legislators closed the public hearing to the public.

It feels hopeless. But there are definitely places in more desperate straits. “We don’t have a corrupt legislature, but in part that’s because they don’t have a lot to sell — they don’t have that much discretion,” said Joe Mathews, the author of “California Crackup.”

“I wish we had a little more corruption,” Mathews mused. “That would mean we could do things.”

O.K. — not the way we are intending to go.

You can reform a political culture, but it’s a big lift. First, the voters would have to convince the legislators that they’re being watched by someone other than the lobbyists. Then they’d have to press for laws that would force a change of behavior, like nonpartisan redistricting and ethics reform. Then the voters would have to follow up, year after year, until the old guard was replaced by a whole new generation who went into politics with dreams of drafting serious legislation, rather than just bringing more stuff back into the district or, at worst, shaking down some landlord at the airport for a thousand bucks.

It’s a lot of watching. Or, failing that, we could just have everybody wear wires.

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A version of this op-ed appeared in print on May 12, 2013, on page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Is Yours More Corrupt Than Mine?.
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301 Comments

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    • DMC
    • USA

    In the 80’s, 200 out of 231 County Commissioners in Oklahoma were indicted. I think that must still be the record-holder for corruption in a state.

      • Charles
      • Tallahassee, FL

      My guess is that Minnesota and Vermont are two of the least corrupt.

        • Lance
        • Austin,Texas

        Everything is better in Texas!

          • ed johnson
          • Cuba, AL

          Gail,
          Thanks for the shout out to Alabama, we have our share of corruption. However, taxes are still lower than NY, NJ and Illinois. Just because you pay more don’t mean you get more.

            • Ben Boissevain
            • New York

            Require all state lawmakers to wear Memoto, a video camera that fits on your lapel and records 24 hours. Lifeblogging should be required.

              • MarilynC
              • Cleveland OH

              Everyone forgets Cleveland, Ohio. Whether it’s good, bad, or indifference to the much-maligned city. But, lest you forget, Cuyahoga County (in Cleveland) government was so corrupt that the FBI took down every county politician, many judges and even smaller fish, to fry a big batch of corruption New Yorkers can only dream about. C’mon, give some love to Cleveland — home of the hapless Cavs, Browns (and maybe not) Indians.

                • David
                • Ithaca, NY

                The thing is, the recent corruption cases aren’t fundamentally different from what goes on every day as a matter of course in Albany, which is institutionalized bribery in the form of committee chairmanships and other lucrative posts doled out by the party leaders in return for loyalty. They’re bribes, plain and simple. The only reform that will make any difference is to get rid of the Legislature altogether and replace it with a nonpartisan, unpaid unicameral assembly, ideally picked not through election but through something like jury selection.

                  • Susanna
                  • South Carolina

                  I’m reading a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and based on his experiences with the New York legislature, all I can say is “same as it ever was.”

                  1. Gail you are so funny (and serious). I adore you!!

                      • DJ McConnell
                      • (Fabulous) Las Vegas

                      One term. ONE TERM. That’s IT. And no opportunity to run for the same type of elected position again, EVER, nor any opportunity for a political appointment to such a position in the event of an unforeseen vacancy. For instance, you’d get your two years as somebody’s congressperson. After that, you’d only be allowed to run for the Senate, for the presidency, for dog catcher, whatever, but you’d be done with the House of Representatives forever.

                      OUTLAW GERRYMANDERING.Demand that each congressional district at least slightly resembles a basic geometric shape. When Luis Gutierrez’s Congressional district was initially created in Chicago, it was in the shape of a giant “U” carved out of primarily Latino neighborhoods from Damen Avenue west to Austin Boulevard with each leg only a few blocks wide, and virtually surrounding another mainly Caucasian district. The Republicans learned well from this maneuver; it’s happening just as blatantly to other districts in various states to this day – Texas comes to mind – in the interest of cherry-picking certain votes in influential districts.

                      These are only two potential changes that if enacted, which I do realize is highly unlikely, MIGHT reduce our elected officials’ rampant pandering to special interests in order to best prolong their political lives and enhance their political livelihood. But I’m sure that the NRA and friends would only find new and ever more creative ways to peddle their influence.

                        • DeathbyInches
                        • Arkansas

                        Our state legislature recently ended its latest session & even my pets breathed a sigh of relief. Our Fox Newsers elected a Republican majority in both our pox-filled houses for the first time since the 1870s & now those of us paying attention realize why we kept them out of the majority all those years. It was like an insane asylum emptied out into our legislature in Little Rock.

                        Our Teapublicans rammed thru dozens of new laws that will keep the Supreme Court busy for years. Our women suffered greatly as did our black & Hispanic voters. Wal-Mart & our 1% did very very well as did Jesus & his Pa, apparently close personal friends of every legislator on both sides in my state. Oh, I left out GUNS….we love guns more than Jesus followed closely by the oil & gas & nursing home-industrial complex.

                        We gots your corruption since most of our state legislators go to Little Rock to feather their own business nests. But we’ve also gots your stupid, which Gail left out in this column. I’ll never understand how stupid people can make lots of money & get elected to pubic office. In my day stupid people worked at the city dump or were janitors…now they work in government.

                        Our former governor Mike Huckabee who art in Florida for tax dodging purposes sucked up gifts like a vacuum cleaner while in office. His 60 thousand per year pay check somehow made him a millionaire. He crushed $300,000 bucks worth of state hard drives leaving office. There’s no hope!

                          • BKW2
                          • Clear Lake City

                          Integrity or lack thereof is a manifestation on the outside what’s already residing on the inside.

                            • Ron Di Costanzo
                            • Santa Monica, CA

                            You can reform a political culture, but it’s a big lift. First, the voters would have to convince the legislators that they’re being watched by someone other than the lobbyists. Then they’d have to press for laws that would force a change of behavior, like nonpartisan redistricting and ethics reform. Then the voters would have to follow up, year after year, until the old guard was replaced by a whole new generation who went into politics with dreams of drafting serious legislation.. ”

                            Yes. The problem IS the voter. Too few people vote, and many who do are lazy, voting for the glossiest brochure, the snappiest ad.

                              • Sally McKinney
                              • Winnetka, CA

                              Great column, Gail. Here’s an idea for another: My State’s More Stupid Than Your State.” Of course, it may be a better idea for a book – length-wise that is.

                                • ALeaf
                                • Queens, NY

                                Underneath Gail Collins always welcome humor, is the terribly sad story of Albany politics. I want to make a pitch for term limits here Gail. A quick way it would seem to get rid of the old guard is to force them to leave after 2 terms. Whether they would be replaced with more serious people truly interested in legislation or more of the same old, same old would have to be the voters’ responsibility. But seems to me there’s more of a chance with term limits.

                                  • Carl Zeitz
                                  • Brooklyn, NY

                                  I recollect an election for governor in Louisiana with a bumper sticker that said, “Vote for the crook, it’s important”.

                                    • Andy
                                    • Somewhere over North America

                                    Nevada – need I say more. When the Mob controlled the state, legislative outcomes were very predictable. The Mob has been replaced by Corporate Gaming. Guess what – legislative outcomes are very predictable. This year we had the addition of Steven Brooks to the mix. Check the tabloids for his story. After threatening the Speaker, and being denied a gun purchase, he was arrested in California for resisting arrest and attacking a police dog. Thank goodness our legislature only meets part time.

                                      • QTCatch
                                      • NY

                                      I remember reading an op ed once chastising news outlets for reporting on horrible racist and unpatriotic and corrupt statements made by random state legislators in random states. We have more important things to talk about, the essay said, than whether some state assembly person in Kentucky said his black constituents are animals, or a senator in Florida thinks evolution is a hoax. It’s false outrage! It’s a needless distraction!

                                      In other words, let the state legislatures be full of idiots! They aren’t coarsening the political process; we are doing so by paying attention and holding them accountable.

                                        • Taylor Shaw
                                        • Louisiana

                                        I think we win the prize here in Louisiana. For years former Governor Edwin Edwards used to boast that the only way he would be convicted of anything was if he was caught with a dead girl or a live boy.

                                          • The State of the District
                                          • D.C.

                                          The District of Columbia’s population is greater than Wyoming’s, so the shenanigans of our city council should count. We’re definitely a contender for the top 10 worst. And, given the recent redistricting plans and attempts to re-write electoral college rules in Virginia, there is no way they should be held up as a model for anyone.

                                            • Don Carolan
                                            • Cranford, NJ

                                            With respect to New Jersey, I once knew a State Senator who believed the state should have an official chair. His suggestion was a witness chair!

                                              • Old Mainer
                                              • Portland Maine

                                              Electrified also?

                                            • rebecca1048
                                            • Iowa

                                            “It has always seemed strange to me…The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” – John Steinbeck

                                            (Been looking for a place to squeeze this in.)

                                              • M.
                                              • Seattle, WA

                                              A good argument for smaller government.

                                                • Diogenes
                                                • Port Orange, Fl

                                                It’s truly sad when a major effort is made to find at least one state legislature which goes about business with selflessness and political probity.

                                                  • MrGoodmorning
                                                  • Boston, MA

                                                  New York should take a page out of New Hampshire’s book: Its unpaid General Court has a huge House of Representatives (400 members!) and a small Senate (It’s basically the state level version of the Town Meeting system of local government on which the overwhelming majority of municipalities in New England run). Not that it would completely eliminate corruption, it would certainly dilute it. New York is a huge state population wise, so its legislature should reflect that. Smaller districts will lead to more responsiveness to constituents.

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