PI Original David Milton Brent Monday February 20th, 2012, 12:57pm

Two Different Views Of Corruption In Illinois

Last week, two separate data sets were released measuring corruption levels in each of the fifty state governments. The studies painted two very different pictures of Illinois, suggesting that evaluations of government activity can vary significantly depending on the metrics being used.

It turns out that corruption, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder.

Last week, two separate data sets were released measuring corruption levels in each of the fifty state governments. The studies painted two very different pictures of Illinois, suggesting that evaluations of government activity can vary significantly depending on the metrics being used.  

On Wednesday, Dick Simpson and other researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) released their report, entitled “Chicago and Illinois, Leading the Pack in Corruption (PDF).” As we reported last week, the study finds the Land of Lincoln to be the third most corrupt state in the nation. The authors of the report blast “‘The Illinois Way’ of public corruption,” which they argue has undermined voter confidence and cost state taxpayers over $500 million in wasted funds each year.

But preliminary results from a different research project, released last Tuesday, find Illinois government to be substantially more transparent and accountable than at least some of its peers.

That project, labeled the State Integrity Investigation, is the product of an ongoing collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International. The collaborators’ goal is to “rank every state on its risk of corruption”, according to the project’s website. Though the final rankings will not be available until next month, the Investigation has released some initial evaluations, which assess each state’s performance on 330 different “risk indicators” by assigning a grade of “Strong”, “Fair”, or “Weak” for each indicator.   

Here’s how Illinois fared on the 330 risk indicators, which are broken down into 14 different general issue categories:

Illinois Corruption Risk Rankings, (according to the State Integrity Investigation)
()=number of risk indicators being evaluated in given category
(all data compiled and quantified by Progress Illinois, from rankings provided on the Investigation’s website)

Public Access to Information (13):             8 Strong; 3 Fair; 2 Weak
Political Financing (44):                            32 Strong; 11 Fair; 1 Weak
Executive Accountability (30):                    23 Strong; 1 Fair; 6 Weak
Legislative Accountability (25):                  15 Strong; 3 Fair; 7 Weak
Judicial Accountability (36):                       25 Strong; 4 Fair; 7 Weak
State Budget Processes (21):                    16 Strong; 3 Fair; 2 Weak
State Civil Service Management (33):         20 Strong; 6 Fair; 7 Weak
State Government Procurement (21):         19 Strong; 1 Fair; 1 Weak
Internal Auditing (13):                              11 Strong; 2 Fair; 0 Weak
Lobbying Disclosure (19):                          12 Strong; 2 Fair; 5 Weak       
State Pension Fund Management (23):       17 Strong; 2 Fair; 4 Weak
Ethics Enforcement Agencies (26):              19 Strong; 4 Fair; 3 Weak
State Insurance Commissions (21):           14 Strong; 4 Fair; 3 Weak
Redistricting (5):                                      1 Strong; 3 Fair; 1 Weak
TOTAL (330):                                          232 Strong; 49 Fair; 49 Weak

In contrast to the study conducted by the political scientists at UIC, the State Integrity Investigation finds that Illinois has a fairly strong record of accountability and openness, earning the highest score of “Strong” on 232 out of 330 total indicators (70%). The Investigation also finds the state to be doing fairly well in three of the issue areas that Simpson and his co-authors highlight as areas in which Illinois is particularly troubled: lobbying, pension fund management, and ethics enforcement.   

In addition, though the State Integrity Investigation has not formally released its rankings of all 50 states, a cursory look into their ratings of risk indicators indicate that Illinois will not be among the nation’s lowest scorers. Compared to some of the other states listed by UIC’s report as the most corrupt, Illinois actually fares pretty well in the State Integrity findings (again, all data compiled and quantified by PI from the Investigation website):

Relative Rankings of 10 States at Risk of Corruption, (according to the State Integrity Investigation)
(approx. % of risk indicators labeled “Strong”)
1. Maine (51%)#
2. New York (52%)
3. Texas (60%)
4. Ohio (62%)
5. Florida (62%)
6. Louisiana (64%)
7. Pennsylvania (66%)
8. Illinois (70%)
9. California (73%)
10. New Jersey (82%)

Why do the UIC researchers and the State Integrity Investigation investigators differ so greatly in their findings? Because they’re aiming to evaluate different things.

Dick Simpson and his UIC coauthors are looking at the state’s history of corruption. They tally the total number of federal corruption convictions in each state between 1976 and 2010, finding that Illinois places third in total number of convictions and third in convictions per capita. These findings underscore how corrupt Illinois government has been over the past 35 years; they do not, however, necessarily indicate anything about the current level of corruption in the state today.  

The State Integrity Investigation, by contrast, aims to describe each state’s current situation by evaluating how “at risk” they are for corruption. According to their research, Illinois is currently doing a relatively good job of keeping public officials honest and accountable -- though there is still room for improvement.

Yet reading too broadly into the Investigation’s findings can also be misleading. Their methodology categorizes two different types of “risk indicators”: those “in law”, meaning they are evaluating what is actually on the books; and those “in practice,” meaning to what extent the laws are actually followed in an appropriate manner. Though Illinois scores well on the risk indicators in general, in some areas it tends to be strong in law but not in practice. For example, on indicator 240 -- “In law, lobbyists are required to file a registration form” -- the state receives a “Strong” rating. Yet on indicator 242 -- “In practice, lobbyists’ registration information is comprehensive and of high quality” -- Illinois receives a rating of “Weak.” In the finally tally, this comes out as a wash -- and yet, the strength of lobbying laws have little value if they are not carried out in practice.

A cynical reading of these two studies would underscore this last point. Illinois and other corrupt states might very well have strong anti-corruption laws in place, in large part because those states have been burned by corruption so badly in the past. But just because the laws exist -- just because Illinois does not on the surface appear to be “at risk” -- does not mean that corruption has actually been eradicated. Thurty-five years of fraud and abuse, the cynic would argue, cannot be washed away so quickly.

An optimist, on the other hand, might find in the two studies some signs of progress. While Illinois’ past may be mired in corruption, its future looks brighter: thanks to stricter laws and increased public awareness, the state appears to be less at risk than many other states with a similarly troubled history. Moving forward, Illinois citizens can continue to push for stringent open government and ethics measures, thereby working toward eradicating the corruption that has long plagued the state. In the words of Simpson, “If voters demand [it], it will happen.”

In the end, which lesson people take away from these disparate findings may depend on their existing inclination to believe that Illinois government has been improving. The final State Integrity Investigation report, which will feature grades, commentary, and recommendations for all 50 states, may help shed some light on the matter. That report will be released March 19.

Stay tuned.       


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