Mon March 19, 2012
Investigation Finds Texas At Risk For Corruption
Texas ranks in the bottom half of all states for being vulnerable to corruption. That’s one of the findings in the extensive State Integrity Investigation which looks at how accountable state governments are to their citizens.
The report released Monday was compiled by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.
The sad news is that Texas nearly flunks the accountability test and has plenty of company. No state gets an A. Twenty- three states receive grades of B or C.
Texas ranks twenty-seventh and receives a D+ when graded in 14 categories designed to measure vulnerability to corruption.
Kelly Shannon, a veteran capitol reporter in Austin, was the primary researcher in Texas.
Shannon: It was a very extensive project. There were 330 different indicators as they called them or questions to answer as part of the research.
Shannon spent several months tracking down the laws in place that are supposed to ensure public access to information; regulate political gifts and contributions; protect against conflicts of interest and cronyism.
Then she looked at whether those laws are really effective. It’s that gap between what’s intended and what really happens that causes Texas’ score to sink like a stone from a B to a D.
Shannon: Several reasons that these scores come down is we have unlimited campaign contributions to candidates except for judicial races. We don’t have bans or any kind of real watchdog on patronage or cronyism when it comes to appointments or rewarding with contracts. And, yeah, we have a strong public information law as they go but the way public officials and government agencies enforce it can bring it down.
Public access to information is among the five categories where Texas flunks. Some agencies and public officials are not required to release records. Officials may deny, delay or limit the release of documents forcing citizens to consider an expensive and lengthy appeal.
Texas also gets an F for executive accountability; state civil service management; a redistricting process that locks out public participation and the state insurance commission.
Alex Winslow is executive director of Texas Watch, a citizen advocacy group that monitors the insurance industry. Winslow helped review the investigation findings.
Winslow: The industry has an enormous amount of influence over what happens at the Department of Insurance. There may be rules on the books about gifts and whether staff can be wined and dined but those rules are disclosure rules not limitations on the access that the industry has to the commissioner and to senior staff.
And Winslow believes allowing the Governor to appoint the insurance commissioner exposes the agency to political pressure.
Winslow: The governor appointing the commissioner raises serious questions about what are his goals and his needs, right? The insurance commissioner should be looking out for the interests of all Texans and all policyholders, not being concerned about serving the politician objectives of any particular governor.
Texas also gets low marks for having no limits on how much individuals, lobbyists or political action committees can contribute to campaigns.
McDonald: That’s been a source for what you might even call corruption in the state over the years.
Craig McDonald directs Texans for Public Justice, a non-partisan research group that tracks the money in Texas politics. McDonald also reviewed the data for accuracy.
McDonald: Texas is by far the largest and wealthiest state that moves hundreds of millions of dollars of political money through the system with no limits. It really skews who is active in Texas politics. For example, if you look at the last election cycle, 2010 in Texas, candidates raised $200 million dollars and $70 million dollars of that came from just 204 individuals. So too few people in Texas have too much political clout and when you have too much clout you have too much influence on the political system.
Texas did score relatively high in other categories. It received a near perfect score for having an independent State Auditor’s Office protected from political influence.
The lowest scoring state in the survey is Georgia.
The highest scoring state might come as a surprise. It’s the home of Tony Soprano and some real-life mobsters. The investigation found that past scandals in New Jersey have resulted in its passing some of the toughest anti-corruption laws in the country.
The State Integrity Investigation graded each state on more than 300 indicators of accountability, transparency, and corruption risk. The indicators are divided into 14 categories, which appear on the report card. Click on each category to see its individual indicators. Or follow the link on the report card to read an overview of what your state is doing well – and not so well – when it comes to government integrity.”