It's always shady in Pennsylvania

Posted: June 18, 2014

OK, I FEEL the need to defend my native state.

Pennsylvania's earned reputation for public corruption is being besmirched.

A new study of states ranks us fifth-most-corrupt behind Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Illinois.

I'm here to tell you we've been wronged. We're more corrupt than that.

For starters, we have Philadelphia, described more than a century ago by muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens in The Shame of the Cities as "the most corrupt and the most contented" of all American municipalities.

Think much changed in 100-plus years?

No offense, Chicago.

More important, the new study is skewed against us in two ways: It doesn't include convictions for state crimes, and its data only go to 2008 - and we've certainly boosted our rap sheet since then.

Who can forget state convictions of former House Speaker John Perzel, former House Speaker Bill DeWeese, former House Whip Mike Veon, other lawmakers, members of their staffs, the Orie sisters and so many more?

Three dozen were charged in state legislative scandals alone after 2008.

Corruption's everywhere: the Legislature, the judiciary, the Liquor Control Board, the Turnpike Commission, Philly Traffic Court.

In just the past 17 months, state charges were brought against 28 public officials, including a Philly assistant district attorney, a former Philly judge, a Philly state senator and five Philly teachers caught in a cheating scandal.

We're so corrupt, we teach it to schoolkids.

But I digress.

The study in question was authored by academics at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the City University of Hong Kong (the co-author there graduated from Indiana and taught at colleges in that state).

I chatted with one author, Indiana chancellor's professor John Mikesell, who confirms that he focused only on federal crimes and convictions.

"And the reason for that," he says, "is maintaining consistency."

Fair enough.

But when I note that Pennsylvania's run of state convictions since 2008 surely bumps up our ranking, Mikesell says that "states like Illinois have similar sorts of experience."

He's right. Sort of.

Illinois lost three governors, 15 state lawmakers, 19 Cook County (Chicago) judges and more, which is pretty impressive.

But that was between 1972 and 2006.

Since then, we've out-Illinoised Illinois (although another governor, Rod Blagojevich, later was convicted), even at the federal-only level.

U.S. Justice Department conviction data from 2000 and 2010 show Pennsylvania with higher numbers than Illinois and each of the supposedly more-corrupt states of Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee.

The only states with more federal convictions than Pennsylvania during that period are four states with larger populations. Illinois, despite a larger population, is behind us.

And if the data are examined on a per-capita basis, as was done by the New York Times a few years back, we rank higher than Illinois and higher than every larger state but Florida.

Also, the Center for Public Integrity, a national nonpartisan nonprofit, led a 2012 study of each state's "risk" of corruption based on state laws and practices.

Pennsylvania was rated a higher risk than Illinois, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana.

The study singled out our laws permitting unlimited campaign contributions and cited our judiciary, our budget process and redistricting as principal reasons for our higher risk of corruption.

Finding stats on corruption charges brought by states is tough. The U.S. Justice Department doesn't keep them. Those who work on corruption studies use federal charges.

But if state and local convictions are added to the mix, I have no doubt that Pennsylvania climbs at least a couple of rungs up the corruption ladder.

We deserve a higher ranking. Our history merits it. Our resistance to reforms requires it.

We've earned our place in the panoply of public corruption.

And it isn't fifth place.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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