The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A state guide to political corruption, according to the reporters who cover it

The most and least corrupt states, according to the reporters who cover them. (Niraj Chokshi)

When it comes to measuring corruption, who better to ask than the people tasked with covering it?

That’s the premise of a new survey of several hundred state political reporters conducted by two professors looking to identify different kinds of corruption at the state level. What they found was that, depending on how you measure it, different states hold the dubious distinction of being most corrupt.

If you define corruption loosely as government officials trading favors for campaign contributions or endorsements — what the professors dub “legal corruption” — Kentucky and New Jersey top the list, with local reporters ranking that kind of corruption in the legislative and executive branches as “extremely common.” When corruption is defined more traditionally — officials trading favors for cash or gifts, or “illegal corruption” — Arizona ranks highest as the only state where local reporters find that kind of corruption to be “very common” in both the legislative and executive branches.

When scores for both measures are combined, as shown in the map above, seven states rise to the top as most corrupt. (They are Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, New Jersey, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.) Meanwhile, eight states were deemed least corrupt. (They are Idaho, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.)

Those findings are based on responses from 280 local reporters surveyed in the first half of the year by Oguzhan Dincer, an associate economics professor at the Illinois State University, and Michael Johnston, a political science professor at Colgate University. Both are lab fellows at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, where they published their results.

Local political reporters were asked to grade — on a five-point scale — each of the three branches of government in their state on legal and illegal corruption. A score of 1 meant corruption was “not at all common,” while a score of 5 reflected “extremely common” corruption.

There are, of course, many ways to measure political corruption in the states. For example, a study published in April found that Oregon was the most corrupt state, according to a review of Justice Department public corruption convictions, a measure often used by academics.

But that Justice Department data has some substantial shortcomings, Dincer and Johnston argue. It only covers federal prosecutions, leaving out those brought forward by state and local officials. And it also reflects the biases, whims and limited resources available to federal prosecutors. An over-active attorney may secure a dozen minor corruption convictions in one state, while a less-active one in another state could miss several examples of far more severe corruption.

Those shortcomings led Dincer and Johnston to use a perception-based corruption measure, as do several international anti-corruption organizations. So, during the first half of this year, they reached out to nearly 1,000 reporters, hearing back from 280. They received no responses from anyone in Louisiana, a state known for a historically high level of corruption, and they received relatively few responses from nine more states — Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Massachusetts, Montana, North Dakota, New Hampshire, South Carolina and South Dakota.

Here’s a breakdown of what they found:

Illegal corruption in America

In no state did reporters perceive illegal corruption — again, the kind in which officials receive cash or gift kickbacks — to be “extremely common.”

Legislatures were home to the most severe corruption, with reporters in 10 states perceiving illegal corruption to be “very common.” Reporters said the same of the executive branch in only two states. The judicial branch fared the best, with the worst state — California — falling short of earning even a “moderately common” corruption ranking.

Journalists reported that corruption was “not at all common” in any branch of government in seven states: Idaho, Massachusetts, Maine, North Dakota, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Vermont.

Illegal corruption in the executive branch

Illegal corruption in the legislative branch

Illegal corruption in the judicial branch

Legal corruption in America

Massachusetts was the only state where journalists reported that legal corruption — where the definition of kickbacks included campaign contributions or endorsements — was “not at all common” in all three branches.

Legal corruption was perceived to be “very common” in both the legislative and executive branches in 10 states, while journalists said it was “extremely common” — the worst ranking — in both branches in Kentucky and New Jersey. Corruption is perceived to be common in all three branches in Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi and New Mexico.

Legal corruption in the executive branch

Legal corruption in the legislative branch

Legal corruption in the judicial branch