When John Mikesell published a study that ranked the most and least corrupt states in America, he got plenty of attention from the press – and few calls from politicians.
In fact, he doesn’t recall any calls from Alabama, ranked No. 6 on his most-corrupt list.
“I got a lot of calls from newspaper reporters, a few from state legislators and one from the governor’s office in one state,” said Mikesell, an economics professor at Indiana University.
Things may be different this year. With Alabama limping away from several high-profile scandals – most notably former Gov. Robert Bentley’s alleged affair, former House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s felony ethics conviction and Roy Moore’s removal from office for defying court orders – Alabamians may be more convinced than ever that Montgomery is a swamp that needs to be drained.
Right out of the gate, candidates in the 2018 statewide elections seemed to make political corruption one of their top talking points. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tommy Battle’s first ads criticized politicians for providing “corruption instead of opportunity, scandal instead of education.” Democratic candidate Walt Maddox spoke of a state “in a cloud of shame.” Sue Bell Cobb, also a Democrat, has campaigned on moving past “the ethical lapses of a number of our elected officials.”
And there’s anecdotal evidence that even with Bentley, Hubbard and Moore gone, the perception of corruption could be a big player in this election year. A weighted online survey, conducted by The Anniston Star last month, found that 54 percent of voters cited corruption as a top concern, topped only by education and health care. (Respondents could choose more than one top concern.)
But behind voters’ seeming exasperation with Montgomery lies a trick question. If Montgomery really is one of the most corrupt capitals in U.S., what exactly is broken? And what real measures – beyond “elect me” – are 2018 candidates proposing to fix Goat Hill?
Crooked by any measure
No matter how one measures political corruption, Alabama doesn’t look good.
An Illinois State University study released earlier this month ranked Alabama among the worst states for both illegal corruption and “legal corruption” – essentially, campaign cash exchanges that look crooked even if they don’t violate state law.
Another study, by the Center for Public Integrity, gave the state a D-plus grade on stopping corruption, though the state didn’t look so bad on the curve. (Alaska, the least-corrupt state in the study, got a C.)
One problem with those studies is defining corruption. People often know corruption when they see it – segregation-era Alabama wouldn’t pass any modern smell test – yet knowing exactly what to measure can be difficult.
The Illinois State study asked news reporters in each state to assess the political cultures of their own states. (The Star didn’t participate in the study.)
The Center for Public Integrity study looked at safeguards already in place. Alabama got its lowest marks for public access to information (there’s no quick place to appeal if the government denies you a record) and political financing (there’s no limit to how much a campaign donor can give).
Mikesell, the Indiana researcher, used the number of federal corruption convictions over time to rank the states. He didn’t include state-level prosecutions. His theory: a state with lots of corruption charges against officials might be more corrupt, or it might simply have more zealous prosecutors.
“I’m assuming federal prosecution is more or less the same all over the country,” he said. So even though Alabama ranks in Mikesell’s top 10 for corruption, the Hubbard trial and Bentley’s travails wouldn’t count in his numbers, though the federal conviction of former Gov. Don Siegelman would.
Mikesell found some similarities between the most corrupt states, notably that they had more public debt than less-corrupt counterparts. States typically can’t borrow money except to use on building projects, so one of Mikesell’s working theories is that there’s a connection between big construction projects and corruption – especially in projects where private profits are involved, like the building of a stadium.
Different words, same message
The upshot of Mikesell’s research is that corruption comes with a cost to taxpayers — $1,308 per person annually in the top 10 most-corrupt states, by his estimation. Mikesell believes that should inspire voters to look closer at ways to make politics more honest.
Yet reform efforts in high-ranked states seem to be rare, and they seem to happen mostly in states where residents may be surprised to find themselves on the most-corrupt list.
South Dakota voters in 2016 approved a ballot measure to overhaul campaign finance, though lawmakers later repealed it. Kytja Weir, a spokeswoman for the Center for Public Integrity, said the measure was inspired in part by a 2012 CPI study that ranked the state 49th for anti-corruption safguards. A 2015 ranking by the center inspired Vermont to change its ethics laws, Weir said.
Ask this year’s candidates what the core problem is and how to fix it, and most will tell you it’s time someone new was in charge.
“Your best indicator of future performance is past performance,” said Walt Maddox, a Democratic candidate for governor. Maddox said his years as Tuscaloosa mayor created a track record that shows he can be trusted.
“Our state needs a governor that will bring back honor, dignity, and a moral compass to state government,” Republican candidate Tommy Battle was quoted as saying, in a prepared statement sent to The Star.
“The number one thing is to elect someone who has no skeletons in their closet,” said Sue Bell Cobb, another Democratic candidate. Cobb said that as a longtime judge and former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, she’s been vetted.
“Judges are held to a higher standard,” she said.
Asked for specific plans to deal with corruption, Maddox said he intends to provide “transparency unparalleled in the state’s history.” He cited a city website he introduced, data.tuscaloosa.com, where residents can look up budget data, building permits and other information about the city he runs.
Cobb wants the state to get rid of partisan elections for appellate courts, and to keep lobbyists from giving anything to lawmakers. Right now, lawmakers can accept gifts up to $25 in value, enough to take someone out to lunch.
None of the major candidates have proposed putting limits on campaign contributions. The Legislature eliminated caps on contributions in 2013, ushering in an era of six-figure checks from donors. The biggest donation in the state so far was a $500,000 gift from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians to the 2014 attorney general campaign of Democrat Joe Hubbard.
Cobb said she’d like to see limits on donations, but doesn’t think courts would allow them following Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court case that opened the floodgates on campaign money.
The spotlight will likely shine hottest on Gov. Kay Ivey, the former lieutenant governor who replaced Bentley last April. When she was sworn in, Ivey was the fresh face who could turn the page on a year of controversy. By November, she’ll not only have to convince voters that she’s opposed to corruption — she’ll have to show that she’s done something about it.
Ivey campaign spokesman Brent Buchanan said the governor has done something: banning lobbyists from appointments to government offices, implementing a nepotism policy and proposing that the Alabama Supreme Court appoint members to the Ethics Commission. The appointments are now made by the governor and lawmakers, even though it’s primarily executive and legislative branch officials who answer to the commission.
“At the end of the day, actions speak louder than campaign promises,” Buchanan said.