Political corruption is the use of legislated powers by government officials for illegitimate private gain. While it isn’t as endemic in the U.S. as it is in some countries (Somalia, North Korea, and Afghanistan being the most corrupt), the problem still exists. According to the Justice Department, in the last two decades more than 20,000 public officials and private individuals were convicted for crimes related to corruption and more than 5,000 are awaiting trial, the overwhelming majority of cases having originated in state and local governments.
But measuring corruption based on convictions can be tricky for a variety of reasons, ranging from inadequate data to partisan bias. One alternative measure is to use perceptions, especially of state and local governments. Oguzhan Dincer and Michael Johnston surveyed the news reporters covering state politics in addition to the investigative reporters covering issues related to corruption during the first half of 2014 to gauge their perception of state corruption:
Our main purpose is to construct perception-based indices measuring two specific forms of corruption across American states: illegal and legal. We define illegal corruption as the private gains in the form of cash or gifts by a government official, in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups. It is the form of corruption that attracts a great deal of public attention. A second form of corruption, however, is becoming more and more common in the U.S.: legal corruption. We define legal corruption as the political gains in the form of campaign contributions or endorsements by a government official, in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups, be it by explicit or implicit understanding.
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We asked reporters how common were these two forms of corruption in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government in 2013 in the state they cover in their reporting in 2013. The response scale ranged from “not at all common” to “extremely common.” For each reporter responding to the survey, we assigned a score of 1 if he/she chose “not at all common,” 2 if he/she chose “slightly common,” and so on. The score of 5 meant that the reporter responding to the survey perceived corruption to be “extremely common.” We then calculated the state scores as the median of these individual scores, which are presented in the tables and maps below.
In none of the states is illegal corruption in government perceived to be “extremely common.” It is nevertheless “moderately common” and/or “very common” in both the executive and legislative branches in a significant number of states, including the usual suspects such as California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas. Arizona is perceived to be the most corrupt state with legislative and executive branches both scoring 4. Among the states in which the legislative and executive branches are perceived to be corrupt, only in Florida and Indiana is illegal corruption in the judicial branch perceived to be “not at all common.” Idaho, North and South Dakota and the majority of the New England states—Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont—are perceived to be the least corrupt states with all three government branches scoring 1.