One ranking system where Oregon is happy to be dead last

Paul Gronke

This report confirms what I've suspected since I moved here in 2001 (full disclosure, my extended family has lived here since 1977): Oregon is not corrupt!  (Louisiana is the most corrupt state, FYI.)

The full dataset is linked from the page, and is based on referrals to the US DoJ for a wide variety of public crimes, including election fraud, campaign finance crimes, corruption convictions, and conflict of interest crimes.

I'm not sure whether anyone will find these ranking interesting, but Oregon's last place finish among the 35 most populous state does reinforce a comment I keep getting when people ask me about voting by mail: "It works in Oregon, because you're Oregon.  But it sure won't work in [insert other state name here]." 

I'd always assumed that politics were pretty clean here, but here are some data to back it up.

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    Jack Bogdanski's head is going to explode.

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    Posted by: Kari Chisholm | Jan 24, 2008 5:53:10 PM Jack Bogdanski's head is going to explode.

    Don't worry, Jack and/or others braying about such things will simply proclaim that is because Bradbury or some other evil-doer Dem/liberal is preventing the cases from being filed, etc. so it is skewing the data.

    So it goes.

  • A. Rab. (unverified)

    I am surprised at the big gap between Oregon and Washington. At 35, Oregon has .68 convictions per 100,000 residents, but Washington (at 30) is 1.52 per 100,000. Are the Washington US Attorneys that much more active or do Washington officials have (comparatively) sticky fingers?

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    Oregon has fewer campaign finance violations, because Oregon is one of only 3 states with no limits on political contributions or expenditures. It is hard to violate a law that does not exist.

  • A. Rab. (unverified)

    This is not state campaign finance, this is federal public corruption prosecution; it is the same state to state. That is why I am surprised Washington has a much higher rate than Oregon. Even though Washington ranks low (30 out of 35), its rate is still high compared to Oregon.

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    I recently saw a film in poli sci class on Louisiana's political culture and it was fascinating to see the assumption and acceptance of corruption as the "way things are" in politics. "They take care of us so if they are gettin a little extra or fun on the side, that's ok" was kind of the overrriding mentality. Politics is as much of a party as Mardi Gras is there. Southern Louisiana and northern Louisiana are almost like separate states in how different their approaches to politics are, too.

  • Jim (unverified)

    Oh come on.

    This just means the feds haven't been very aggressive here.

    This kind of complacency is a bad thing and Oregon may not be Louisiana but we have real problems, particularly at the local level.

  • Miles (unverified)

    What Jim and other critics of local Oregon governments fail to distinguish is the difference between policy disagreement and corruption. They don't like developer subsidies for things like South Waterfront or other Portland City Council giveaways. Fine. But there's a difference between that and corruption.

    Corruption exists in Oregon, but we are cleaner than other states.

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    Well said, Miles. I agree.

  • Marty Wilde (unverified)

    Hey folks, let's not kid ourselves - government with low corruption does not automatically mean good government. We consistently underfund practically every aspect of government expenditure in Oregon, from law enforcement to education. Oregon's schools just got a D+ from one major ranking study, in the bottom 10%. We can't manage to keep state troopers on the highway 24/7. Besides, I suspect it's an illusion. A system of part-time, poorly paid legislators like ours virtually guarantees that they'll be independently wealthy, perpetually destitute, or completely owned by some industry or another.

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    Too funny.

    Hillary's clean, too, right?

  • RW Twain (unverified)

    I'm wondering if the numbers might be so low b/c corruption is not prosecuted in Oregon. Perhaps, corruption is so pervasive, maybe even exceeding collusion, that it simply never gets on the federal radar screen. I read a good deal of local news and the interval is not long in which I don't see some allegation related to the schemings of some quasi-public figure taking advantage of "the system." From the Transit Mafia to the rumors of Bend as a "Deadwood" run by the construction industry, there's likely at least a modicum of government corruption.


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    "Jack Bogdanski's head is going to explode."

    Nothing like a near-miss and a common nemesis to bring people together. :)

  • Gma (unverified)

    Come on Paul, you wouldn't really argue that this figure and study is a sufficent condition to argue Oregon is actually a less corrupt state than more than half the states in the union, would you? Now I have to fret that such a good comment about the inanity of a thread about the non-story about the endorsement that never happened by an organization that is not really significant (I'm a reasonably thoughtful liberal/progressive Democrat who finds the PDA to not be at all relevant.) could have been a fluke.

    I am curious if the authors of the Corporate Crime Reporter report actually studied how many unprotected acts of Republican-on-Democrat and Democrat-on-Republican prosecutions took place. The "prosecutor's fallacy" teaches us we need to consider such types of prior statistics in analyzing these kinds of simplistic tabulations.

    Lestadelc: Having lived and been active in grassroots politics in both states over the years in question, I would say the answer is mainly that WA U.S. attorneys were more active. I won't go into why, it's not at all flattering to Oregon.

    Paul, here's an observations about VBM and why it actually says something about the deception that our corruption rate is supposedly lower in Oregon. We simply have decided certain types of corruption are OK if sanctioning them would get in the way of indulging our self-interests. Dan Meek has already provided one example. (A. Rab's dumb comment would come as a true revelation to former Democratic Alabama governor Don Siegelman as he sits in a federal prison serving a 7-year term for a state campaign finance "violation" conviction engineered by the Rove hit team.)

    Here's another: It is still a crime in Oregon for anyone, including a politician, to politic within two hundred feet of a poling place where almost no one actually marks a ballot anymore. It is not a crime for a politician or her representatives to spend unlimited amounts of money to repeatedly contact you in your home to cajole you into voting for her over those two weeks when you have a live ballot and a pen in your hand. As an ethics official told me: It will be a cold day in hell when the kind of people we Oregonians pick to be our leaders pass any ethics or elections laws that they would actually be subject to, or that would interfere with our inherently self-indulgent attitudes in present day Oregon. And given the demographics, that mainly is a reflection on Portland metro area Oregonians.

    Come on, someone needs to start another inane and irrelevant thread where the dumb and clueless that dominate B.O. can actually work themselves into a lather over irrelevancies. In this quickly deteriorating election year I really need to have my faith in Paul's analytic skills restored.

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    I think it's certainly fair to argue that this study may not have uncovered the correct absolute number of public integrity crimes. After all, they can only count the ones they know about.

    But for all the folks that are calling BS, you're kind of missing the point: In a (rotten) apples-to-apples comparison, Oregon has the least public corruption of the 35 states studied.

    They may have only found some X percentage of the rotten apples in each state, but on a comparative basis, we're better off.

  • messieur t (unverified)

    ..."based on referrals to the U.S. DoJ...."

    Who can make a referral to the U.S. DoJ? If A.G. Hardy Myers or D.A. Schrunk are relied upon to investigate public corruption for referral to the Feds, then Oregon is suffering from (ahem!) lingering Goldschmidt bias.

    I don't know why Karen Immergut has been so quiet, unless Oregon really is different.

    Gronke may believe it, but I don't.

  • Patrick A (unverified)

    Well, here's my sample size of one:

    I chair a suburban planning commission where there is a fair amount of residential and commercial development. It would seem to me that, if we had a culture of public corruption in Oregon, I'd at a minimum be dimly aware of it. You know, the "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" sort of thing, at least. And by corruption, I'm talking about bribes, favorable contracts, sweetheart real estate deals. Actual cash.

    The fact is, if someone so much as hinted at a bribe for a land use action, I'd drop over dead of shock. It would be so completely outside the realm of my expectations that it would be like seeing a unicorn.

    Now, to be sure, I agree with the old saw that "it's what's legal that's a crime." Cozy campaign finance relationships, revolving door lobbying, et al are a problem. But if your definition of public corruption is what's not allowed that gets done, I agree with the study: Oregon's pretty clean.


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    Corruption "Oregon Style" does not show up on the types of measures in this study.

    Channelling money through public and quasi public agencies to individuals and interest groups through ostensibly "legal" mechanisms is what Jack Bog and others (such as me) consider corruption.

    Neil Goldschmidt gets a million dollars for "consulting" with no work product. Homer Williams gets 6.6 million for 100 parking spaces that have a market value of 2.2 million. Faking the cost estimates for urban renewal district infrastructure buildout and then refusing to come clean, years after the original estimates are exceeded by orders of magnitude.

    This is corruption "Oregon Style." No, it won't show up on studies like this, but it is rampant, and it is every bit as corrupt as taking bribes.

  • Gma (unverified)

    I don't doubt for a minute Pat's good intentions here, or factual recitation. I'd like to dissect this comment a bit to show where we miss the mark in Oregon and on B.O. too often:

    And by corruption, I'm talking about bribes, favorable contracts, sweetheart real estate deals. Actual cash.

    Few in public life takes anything close to what could be characterized as a bribes anymore. It's too easy just to get one of your own who'll do favors elected, if you're an interest financially situated to give bribes, particularly in the NW. By the way, the preferred form of bribery `round here are political friends running fundraisers amongst constituents who have just one or two favors to ask during the session (like the chance to actually draft legislation as Dems and Repubs in our legislature make a practice of). And particularly in a state with no limits on campaign contributions as well and where it is an article of faith amongst the B.O. crowd that personal contributions are inherently more "uncorrupt" than corporate contributions. (Personal contributions under $10 excluded.)

    Also, I wouldn't bet that most of the non-petty crimes in the cited report were actually prosecuted as outright bribes. Patterns of quid pro quo with months or years between acts and the "garbage can" theory of RICO are much more than norm. (Just ask Don Siegleman about that.)

    But if your definition of public corruption is what's not allowed that gets done

    Honestly, that's not a realistic definition. There are all manner of acts of misfeasance, nonfeasance, and malfeasance (check your Black's Law Dictionary) that, in conjunction with other actions that could be perfectly legal in isolation, are punished as corruption elsewhere. Tom Potter's laughable justification for getting caught in a prima facie violation of the state ethics laws by accepting Blazer's tickets provide an example. His argument in essence was he WAS doing it to advance the Blazer's private interests because he felt it was good for the City. The GSPC staff cited the law there was no factual question he broke, and the political appointees of the GSPC staff flat out refused to act. Corruption ain't what it used to be amongst the kind of people we like our leaders to appoint to enforce our laws.

    I agree with the old saw that "it's what's legal that's a crime."

    Yep. In a smaller state like Oregon, there's not a chance the pols and their most important supporters are going to pass any corruption laws they would have any chance of being caught violating. Don Meek gave example #1.

  • A. Rab. (unverified)


    Download the PDF of the actual report (not the summary on the website) and you will find a list of what crimes were counted for those statistics. State campaign financing laws were not listed (they did list federal campaign financing laws). The fact that Oregon allows unlimited donations for state office is not relevant for those numbers. Also, checking google, they got Siegelman on federal corruption charges, not state campaign finance laws.

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    GMA, if you don't like the quality around here, raise it by contributing. Complaining on a blog or e-mail list that someone else isn't writing what you'd like is bootless. DIY!

    That said, I agree to a certain extent with what you and Rob Kremer & maybe some others have said. Pat's experience may reflect geographical variation that some people have mentioned. Here in Portland there are real issues, many of which are embodied in the Portland Development Commission and its ideas of what good development is and who it should serve, and who has influence over it.

    In addition to actual boodle, the backscratching and logrolling that goes on near whatever line we were to draw, on either side of it, contribute to a smug political culture that sometimes also manifests itself at the county and Metro levels. I was most struck by this back in the early '90s when the Eastside MAX expansion proposed then went down, in my view at the time because of an self-satisfiedly inept campaign for the bonds for the 10% of the funding that would have been required. As far as I could see, from a citizen perspective, the campaign consisted mainly of waving around a City Club & Oregonian endorsement and a list of bigwig endorsers; it was insubstantial and patronizing. The backers were shocked that their say-so wasn't enough.

    It was a damned shame, because that plan was much better than the way the MAX has subsequently evolved. (Unlike Rob, and perhaps some of the other critics, I support light rail and also would like to see bus service expanded). And, of course, due to the types of financing required, it actually has been more susceptible the borderline relationships under criticism.

    Which brings me to the place where I part company with Rob K and perhaps others here. A lot of what we are talking about here is how the cult of compromise compromises public integrity. Or to put that another way, it is the result of the apotheosis of "public-private partnership" as the ideal of how to do things.

    This situation is substantially the result of right-wing success at putting over the myth that "the private sector" or the (ostensibly and not really) "free market" are always more efficient at everything. Actually there are any number of things that are best done by public agencies that can be held accountable with proper public transparency. Conversely, "public private partnership" can get us the worst of both worlds, which is the category into which most of what's under discussion falls, IMO.

    Basically what happens is that a lot of right-wing oppositon to public agency is not about efficiency at all, but crocodile tears over loss of opportunity for private business to make a profit. And having successfully demonized "government" and obscured the real forms, operations and results of unregulated markets, the right has created both pressure and incentive for any public project to be done in a way that the word "private" can be attached to it. And the private partners in effect get to charge a rent on the use of their private status for propaganda benefit.

    Development and maintainance politics then can become a matter of which "private" partners get access to making that rent. Sometimes this falls out on partisan lines, other times along factional ones within a single-party dominated area.

    And, of course, if the market ideologues got their way, much of this would not change except that more public actions would be wholly contracted out, and a different set of economic elites would get the benefits. The suburban to exurban and highway development favored by the crowd who rail against the transit mafia (so to speak) are just talking about money going into different pockets. It's no accident that in the congressional reign of Gingrich and DeLay, the king of non-lobbying related "porK" boodle (the lobbying stuff the "free market" leaders kept to themselves) was the chair of the committee dealing with highway funding.

    For every latte liberal, there are three cappucino conservatives.

    The prime example of this whole phenomenon at the national level these days is healthcare reform, of course.

    (Sorry to people further away for the PDX focus, it's where I happen to be -- but I bet there are variants all over the place & it would be good to hear examples.)

  • A. Rab. (unverified)

    It is important to draw a distinction between out and out corruption (what the report was trying to measure) and a political culture that is too comfortable with back scratching, political rewards, etc. While the report’s methodology is far from perfect, it does indicate what a lot of us agree on: Oregon is fairly free of traditional notions of corruption. For other states this is not true. Actual bribery and other forms of traditional corruption is a more common occurrence. The anger over things like campaign donations giving access, plum appointments going to backers, etc. is a distinct problem and should not be confused with traditional corruption. It is important to draw a distinction because the two problems require different solutions.

    Successful strategies for fighting traditional corruptions tend to be a combination of harsher penalties for accepting bribes (and soliciting bribes, etc.) while raising the pay of those most susceptible to participate in petty corruption. This two-part strategy is effective because it raises the risk of being corrupt, while decreasing the need to be corrupt. For example, the nation of Georgia has had some success in cleaning up its federal police after George Soros gave a grant to raise officer pay. However, this strategy would be less effective in fighting “new” corruption.

    For this “new” corruption (though I hesitate to apply “corruption” as the term) the best solution tends to be increased transparency and a vigorous political opposition. Generally, the opposition will be from another party, but that is not always the case. For example, Michael Dukakis came to power fighting against the entrenched interests of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and Sarah Palin has found electoral success running against Alaska’s Republican establishment.

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    Having lived in a couple of so called Third World or even more euphemistically Developing nations, and having spent a fair amount of time in NE states like New Jersey and New York, I can state categorically that Oregon is head and shoulders above all of these areas.

    There is a complete difference in cultural expectations from bottom to top. When I'm back east or in the Chicago area for example, a recurring theme is being Connected to someone who can do a favor. Said connections confer a higher status on the narrator, from the ability to secure an ice chest full of ice from kitchen entrance of a nearby hotel restaurant, all the way up to acquiring jobs and/or government contracts.

    I've been approached three times in the last 25 years in Portland with under the table kickback offers in various low level supervisory jobs.

    On two of them, I just said, "You ain't east of the Mississippi (I know, I'm forgetting the Southwest) now pal. We don't play that way here." On the third one, I went in a told my boss what the side offer was, and he instructed me to take the deal, following which I turned the bribe over to him as part of the sale price.

    Sure, we need to remain vigilant and have our muckrakes at the ready, but there's also the Damned if you do meme. If you relentlessly attack politicians for corruption where none exists, they will be more inclined to decide, "I guess I might as well get mine since everyone's already convinced that we're all crooks."

    This may partially explain how outraged we get over infractions like inappropriate cell phone use, unwarranted sick days and so on........

    We expect it to be cleaner than elsewhere, and that expectation is at least somewhat self fulfilling.

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    gma, have to agree with Kari here. I never suggested this was "sufficient" (whatever that means), it is just one study based on a set of statistics. If you believe there is evidence to the contrary, please provide it.

    I have lived from 1980-2000 in IL, MI, and NC. Politics was much more bruising there. I think Jack does a service by exposing insider dealing in Portland, but my own impression is that our system is a lot more clean and transparent than most of the country.

    ironically, this is why I initially opposed the 'clean elections' system--we're pretty darn clean already, and didn't think public financing would change much.

    Dan Meek is right, though--we do need to tighten up our disclosure and campaign finance laws.

  • A. Rab. (unverified)

    Do you agree with Meeks that we need contribution limits for state offices?

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