When It Comes to State Integrity, It’s Hard to Beat California’s C- Rating

Thursday, November 12, 2015

If California were being graded for its governmental integrity on a curve, the state would be near the top of the class and a candidate for valedictorian.

Sadly, The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) applied a rigid standard to its data-driven State Integrity Report 2015 and California received a C-, tied with Connecticut. Only Alaska was better, with a C.

Eleven states failed.

The ratings were based on 245 questions in 13 categories, including lobbying disclosure, ethics enforcement, electoral oversight, budget processes, procurement and legislative, executive and judicial accountability.   

CPI summed up the problem thusly:

“In two-thirds of all states, ethics oversight entities regularly fail to initiate investigations or impose sanctions. The laws or rules that govern when lawmakers should abstain from voting based on conflicts of interest are often hopelessly vague, and legislators sometimes ignore them anyway.”

This absence of transparency and accountability in statehouses across the country is exacerbated by a decline in media coverage. A 2014 Pew Research Center report found 35% fewer full-time statehouse reporters compared to 2003.

California earned its C- by accumulating 73 points out of 100. The state received an A for budget processes and pension fund management and an F for judicial accountability and public access to information. The state netted a B+ for lobbying disclosure and a B- for internal auditing.

The most common grade was C-. California got six of them in: political financing; electoral oversight; executive accountability; legislative accountability; procurement and ethics enforcement. The final grade was a D+ in civil service management.

The F in judicial accountability was based on a score of 58 out of 100 points, earned by answering 28 questions. Lowlights include: no public access to performance evaluations of judges; no regular auditing of judges’ asset disclosure forms; no prohibition against nepotism, cronyism and patronage when hiring staff; lower-level judges, in many cases, don’t have to explain their decisions in writing; and there is no cooling-off period for judges when they leave the bench to take a job in the private sector.

The D+ for civil service management (67 points) was earned for things like having an unenforced law that protects civil servants “from recrimination when reporting cases of corruption, graft, or abuse of power.” California got zero points because it had “more than five documented cases of whistleblowers enduring recrimination after reporting a case of corruption.”

The state also got zero points for only allowing access to asset disclosure records of senior civil servants via e-mail request, rather than an online database. Their asset disclosure forms are also not regularly audited.

The champion of open government in California the past few years has been state Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco). He won the Society of Professional Journalists’ Public Official Award from the Northern California chapter twice. The last time come in March 2014, just one week before Senator Yee was arrested by FBI agents and charged with racketeering, taking bribes and running guns in the Philippines. The Senate suspended Yee, he abruptly ended his campaign for state Secretary of State and he pleaded guilty to a number of charges in July of this year.

The CPI thought it ironic that “one of the few legislators willing to stand up for open records in California was living a secret criminal life and faces the possibility of a lengthy term in federal prison.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

States Flunk at Integrity (by Nicholas Kusnetz, The Center for Public Integrity)

California Gets C-Minus for Integrity (by John Howard, Capitol Weekly)

California Gets C-Minus in Government Integrity Survey, 47 States Score D-Plus or Lower (by Thomas Peele, Bay Area News Group)

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