WASHINGTON — Former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell’s indictment on charges that he accepted illegal gifts, vacations and loans from a major campaign contributor who sought special treatment is so shocking, in part, because McDonnell is the first governor in the commonwealth’s history to face criminal charges. Unlike plenty of other states, Virginia doesn’t have a long history of scandals and ethics abuses.
Which states are more used to corruption? Well, depending on how you define corruption, it could be Florida, or Louisiana, or Tennessee, or New York, or Georgia.
Below is an explanation of how each of the above won its dubious distinction.
Georgia: In March 2012, the Center for Public Integrity released a report tracking 330 separate ethics, transparency and accountability metrics in each state. The results showed Georgia had some of the most lax ethics rules in the country and lacked a strong ethics enforcement agency to enforce the laws on the books. More than 650 government employees accepted gifts from vendors doing business with the state between 2007 and 2008, the report showed.
Other big losers in the Center for Public Integrity study included South Carolina, Maine, Michigan, South Dakota, Wyoming and Virginia. All seven states earned F grades.
Tennessee: The Daily Beast used FBI arrest records to take a more concentrated look at wasteful spending, embezzlement and convictions for public corruption and ties to organized crime among the states in the decade between 1999 and 2008. Tennessee ranked number one overall, thanks to its top-10 rankings in fraud, forgery and counterfeiting and embezzlement.
Rounding out the top five: Virginia, Mississippi, Delaware and North Carolina. In all five states, police and prosecutorial corruption and scourges like Medicare fraud help boost their rankings.
Florida: Between 1998 and 2007, 824 public officials in Florida were convicted on public corruption charges at the local, state and federal level. According to a tally compiled by The New York Times, that was more than any other state. New York came in second place, with 704 public officials locked up, while Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Ohio and Illinois all saw more than 500 officials convicted.
New York: Another watchdog group called Integrity Florida pointed to older data that show 1,762 individuals have been convicted on public corruption charges in Florida — an average of 50 people per year. That’s a lot, but it’s not as many as New York, which saw 2,522 officials convicted over the same stretch. More than 2,300 California officials went to jail over the same period, the group said.
A University of Illinois at Chicago study from February 2012 found corruption cost the taxpayers of Illinois an estimated $500 million per year. Between 1976 and 2010, the study showed, the Northern District of Illinois, which covers Chicago, scored 1,531 convictions in the 35-year window, more than any other jurisdiction. The Central District of California, which covers Los Angeles, the Southern District of New York, which covers Manhattan, and the District of Columbia all won more than 1,000 convictions over the same time frame.
Louisiana: Throw out the District of Columbia and the territories and use some more recent data from the FBI, and Huey Long’s home state reaches the top spot. Louisiana had nearly nine convictions for every 100,000 people, Business Insider data show, trailed closely by North Dakota, South Dakota, Kentucky and Alaska.
Lest we dwell solely on the bad news, here’s the good news: States such as Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Utah, Nebraska and New Hampshire consistently show up near the bottom of the corruption lists. Generally speaking, those states have stronger ethics boards, tighter rules on lobbyist and vendor gifts and more transparent reporting systems for political contributions.
Perhaps Virginia will join them soon: Both Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and House of Delegates Speaker William Howell (R) say McDonnell’s conviction will spur them to make ethics reform a top priority of this year’s legislative session.