NJ Tops Nation for Ethics: Report

New Jersey has done the best job of any state in the nation in enacting anti-corruption laws designed to insure both transparency and public accountability, according to a study done by the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity.

The State Integrity Investigation reviewed 330 "Corruption Risk Indicators" across 14 categories of state government including campaign finance, ethics enforcement, as well as how the executive, legislative and judicial branches measure up when it comes to  public accountability and transparency.

No state got an ‘A’ but New Jersey got the highest grade, an 87 or a ‘B+.’ It was closely followed by Connecticut which got an 86, while New York got a 65 or a  ‘D.’

Ingrid Reed, former director of the New Jersey Project for Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute, said, “It is nice to be ranked number one, but I also read the fine print and it said the top states for their transparency and accountability usually got that way because they had a lot of trouble before. So, I think we get points for responding to problems and having some good laws in place."

Despite some limitations, Reed says the report serves as a good starting point on what should be a national debate: knowing what government is doing and how it goes about doing it.

However, she says analysis does not reflect New Jersey’s governing realities: that much of the “real action” is at the local and county levels – that’s where most of the public's money is spent.

"This study does not refer to where most of government goes on, which is the local level, at the county level and the school districts. It does not say anything about the fact that the 35,000 officials at the local and county level [have] no required ethics training. It is very difficult to find out anything about disclosure or conflict of interest. There is no law against nepotism. Yet all of these features about New Jersey do happen at the state level, they don't happen in the governments that most of us experience, " Reed explained.

Brigid Callahan Harrison, professor of Political Science and the Law for Montclair University, agrees. No evaluation of New Jersey's governance, she said, can ignore the way the political parties use regional and local patronage to keep their hold on Trenton. "I think one of the things the study does not look at is those shadow governments, the county governments, the municipal governments  and how parties have this kind of intractable role in New Jersey's political system that may not on the face of it appear corrupting but in actuality is."

Harrison thinks the study is flawed, raising more questions than it answers. "I think what the researchers are attempting to do is perhaps to quantify matters that are not quantifiable and from that they are drawing conclusions that are really spurious because they are not reflective of the kind of gritty, deep context that they purport to examine."

The spoils of political patronage are one example for Harrison. She says it actually defines everything from how people get elected to go to Trenton and which professionals get picked to do public work.

"Elections are essentially run by parties in this state. Most functions of government  are partisan based, whether we are talking about the composition of legislative committees in which the majority party is always in the majority or we are talking about re-districting,” she said. “The reality is you can't essentially separate out  the role that political parties, both the Republicans and Democrats  are meshed in how government works."

Additionally, Reed said the survey is on its weakest footing when it grades how the state "in practice" enforces and utilizes the laws it has on the books. She noted that state government got points for holding hearings, but the survey did not explain what the hearings were like and what people thought of them. She also thinks one key omission  was an assessment of the quality of voter education.

"In New Jersey that is very difficult information to find. I think the study is very helpful but makes it difficult to evaluate the actual experience that  citizens have, you aren't very engaged in the process,"  she explained.

Both Reed and Harrison flagged the role of the independent authorities at the state, county and local levels as sources of potential corruption that need more scrutiny and study.  

Back in 2008 The New York Times ranked the states for the number of convicted public officials from 1998 through 2007. New Jersey ranked eighth with 418. New York ranked number 2 with 704. Florida came in first place with 824.

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