Montana gets D+ on corruption risk report card
Written By: John S. Adams Source: http://www.greatfallstribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2012203210303
HELENA — A new report published this week found that Montana is at a high risk for corruption in state government.
The first-ever State Integrity Investigation — a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International — gave Montana a D-plus on its Corruption Risk Report Card.
Montana tied with several other states as the 27th-least-corrupt state in the nation.
None of the states scored above a B-plus — and that grade was given only to New Jersey. Georgia received the lowest score, an F.
According to the report’s findings, Montana state government lacks transparency and accountability to citizens, and the state is ripe for corruption.
“In the case of Montana, there are two problems: The laws on the books are not very strong, and the implementation of those laws are not very good,” said Randy Barrett, communications director for the Center for Public Integrity. “The states are doing a fairly poor job of protecting the public trust, and they have a lot of work to do to improve transparency and accountability.”
The project looked at government transparency in a variety of categories, from public access to information, to legislative accountability, to lobbying disclosure and ethics enforcement.
Montana received a failing grade in the categories of public access to information, judicial accountability, state pension fund management, lobbying disclosure and ethics enforcement agencies.
The state earned ratings of D-minus to B-minus in the areas of executive accountability, state civil service management, state insurance commissions, political financing, legislative accountability, state budget processes and procurement.
The state received an A rating in the categories of internal auditing and redistricting.
Dennis Swibold, who teaches public affairs reporting at the University of Montana School of Journalism, wrote the Montana portion of the report.
Swibold said he spent nearly nine months researching about 330 questions that examined various categories of transparency in government.
Swibold said the results of the research he and reporters in 49 other states prepared for the report was peer reviewed before the report was published this week.
“There have been surveys that looked at different aspects of our report, but there’s never been anything as sweeping as this,” Swibold said.
In his report examining Montana’s scorecard grade, Swibold wrote that while the state has some good transparency and open government laws on the books, the lack of enforcement mechanisms make it difficult for the public to access information about certain aspects of state government.
“Access to public records varies by agency, and sometimes lags behind advances in information technology,” Swibold wrote. “Weak disclosure requirements and inadequate staffing frustrate efforts to monitor lobbying and track the assets of officials responsible for overseeing public funds.”
According to Swibold, the state does a poor job of regulating and monitoring lobbying disclosure, and the enforcement of those rules depends on actual complaints. The state also fails to monitor the lobbying of executive-branch departments, according to the study.
The report also found that state ethics laws suffer from ambiguity and weak enforcement, and “a rash of top-level hires by the current administration has raised questions of cronyism.”
The report is critical of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, who has been “dogged” by “questions of cronyism and favoritism” since he was elected in 2004, the report states.
“The most notable cases involved the appointment of sitting legislators to top-paying executive-branch jobs. Most were Democrats, but one was a Republican state senator who promptly switched parties and threw control of the state Senate to the governor’s party,” Swibold wrote. “The hires broke no ethics laws, and administration officials insisted they were merit-based, but the appointments drew protests from Republicans, political scientists and the press.”
The report also points to Schweitzer’s hiring of his former college roommate, Joe Maurier, to run the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and the uproar surrounding the governor’s brother, Walter Schweitzer, who made headlines early in the administration with reports that he raised funds from lobbyists for Schweitzer’s inauguration ball, and was wielding undue influence in the governor’s office.
Schweitzer’s spokeswoman, Sarah Elliott, issued a statement Tuesday responding to the claims made in the report.
“Gov. Schweitzer is the only governor in recent history who did not take PAC (political action committee) money for either of his campaigns for governor,” Elliott said in the statement. “The lobbyist culture of Helena has not been able to buy their way to the front of the line, so it is no surprise they are critical of the governor.”
Elliott pointed out that, according to the study, the executive branch gets a C-plus, the legislative branch a C-minus and the judicial branch an F.
“All of the states surrounding Montana — North and South Dakota, Idaho and Wyoming — received lower scores,” Elliott said.
Swibold said that despite Montana’s relatively low grade on the scorecard, the report does not imply that Montana is a “hotbed for corruption.”
“We’re looking for risks,” Swibold said. “First, we looked at the laws on the books: Are they there and are there holes in the laws? Second, we looked at how do you enforce those laws: Do the laws have any teeth to make sure you can get the job done?”
Barrett said the goal of the project was to raise awareness about the lack of transparency and accountability in state governments throughout the country. Barrett said he hopes the report’s findings will inspire citizens to take action and demand that lawmakers do more to strengthen accountability.
“Sure budgets are tight, but if ethics enforcement is important to you, you find a way to pay for it,” Barrett said. “You find money for printing. You find money for state National Guard. Why not ethics? Defunding these areas is one of the ways lawmakers weaken existing structure.”
The two-day-old report already prompted a South Carolina lawmaker to meet with the Senate ethics committee chairman and legal council from the South Carolina Ethic’s Commission to discuss ways to improve ethics enforcement in that state.
Richland County, S.C., Sen. John Courson, a Republican, said he took the action after the state received the failing grade. He added that he wants to see if there is anything legislators can do to improve that state’s laws.
“I think what we’re trying to do with this investigation is to put this information out there for the citizens to use for ammunition to demand better government and more transparency,” Barrett said. “We’ve left it up to governments for long enough.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
- “All of the states surrounding Montana — North and South Dakota, Idaho and Wyoming — received lower scores,” Elliott said.
- Swibold said that despite Montana’s relatively low grade on the scorecard, the report does not imply that Montana is a “hotbed for corruption.”
How can this be justified? That is like a child saying “but what they did was worse than what I did” incredible, we are talking about our government, not first grade antics. Yes, it does imply that Montana is a “hotbed for corruption” let’s call a spade a spade. Montana brags about the $400 million surplus that even the media praised the state. Is the $400 million hush, hush money? It mentioned about budgets being to tight to have ethics enforcement…$4oo million?? Wait, they wouldn’t be able to incarcerate innocent Montanans if they had to enforce ethics on how they get their money.
”Gov. Schweitzer is the only governor in recent history who did not take PAC (political action committee) money for either of his campaigns for governor,” Elliott said in the statement. “The lobbyist culture of Helena has not been able to buy their way to the front of the line, so it is no surprise they are critical of the governor.”
No, he only took money from CCA – Corrections Corporations of America. The largest prison corporation that wants to buy out 48 states worth of prisons. It was in the newspaper how CCA donated towards his campaign. This makes him different, in what way? There are those elected officials that have been caught saying that “they are above the law.” Montana, how long are we going to put up with this? Mark my words, what I have been saying about the prisons, the corruption and needing to have the prisons full….there will be someone that you know, or love that is going to end up in prison! Please wake up Montana! Don’t allow this to happen!