Politics & Government

Does Idaho need to drain the swamp? State lags in national anti-corruption ranking

Far from the reaches of Washington, D.C., there may be another swamp in need of draining: Boise.

Idaho’s anti-corruption rules are the third-worst in the country, according to a new national ranking called the S.W.A.M.P. Index, giving elected officials less incentive to avoid ethical violations.

The Index is a project produced by the Coalition for Integrity, a nonpartisan advocacy group that analyzes state laws governing ethics agencies, gift giving and campaign contribution reporting.

Idaho scored 16 points out of 100 in the ranking of various anti-corruption laws, placing it ahead of only Wyoming (12 points) and North Dakota (0 points).

Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, a Republican, said corruption is not a big problem in Idaho. He said lawmakers should not be accepting gifts.

“I think all state legislators in Idaho are committed to conducting their public affairs above board and in a transparent manner,” he said. “If (an incident did) come to my attention, we would be on top of it immediately.”

Idaho residents should be alarmed by the state’s low rating, said Coalition for Integrity CEO Shruti Shah, because Idaho’s lax rules make it easier for legislators and executive officials in the state capital to be close to donors,

“Politicians should be more accountable to and serve the interests of all of their constituents, rather than just those that come bearing gifts,” Shah said. Washington state ranked first in the index, with a score of 78.

The biggest trouble with Idaho’s record, according to the S.W.A.M.P. Index — which stands for States With Anti-Corruption Measures for Public Officials — is the lack of an ethics agency that can investigate and punish lawmakers for ethical transgressions. The state’s House of Representatives has an ethics committee made up of members, but Shah advocates for an independent body protected from being fired without cause.

“If you don’t have that in your state, then I think you’re missing a key element of the ethical framework,” she said.

The coalition said other swampy characteristics include allowing legislators and executives to receive gifts from people and failing to require limited liability companies that donate at least $1,000 to political causes to disclose their owners.

On the bright side, the Coalition for Integrity said, political committees must disclose the names of their donors, and lobbyists are generally prohibited from giving politicians gifts.

Phil Haunschild, an analyst at the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative watchdog organization, said the report does a good job in some areas, but doesn’t mention the “dubious practice” of raising pensions for legislators or allowing taxpayer dollars to go toward campaigning and lobbying.

The Center for Public Integrity, an investigative news organization, gave Idaho a D- grade on its 2015 State Integrity Investigation.

Bedke took exception to the way the Coalition for Integrity ranked each state numerically.

“Every state has a custom and a culture on these subjects, and because that doesn’t fit into someone’s matrix, it’s unfair to conclude that that state lags in attention to ethics or campaign finance or those types of things,” he said.

He said the legislature works closely with the state Attorney General’s office to address problems. Additionally, a committee this year will provide recommendations to the legislature for improving campaign finance disclosures. Bedke also expects legislation related to financial disclosures and transparency sometime soon.

“Frankly, there’s room for improvement,” he said. “It’s a system that’s served us well, and it needs to be improved upon.”

Informing the public about how well their state guards against corruption is important, Shah said, because it encourages voters to hold elected and appointed officials accountable. A robust ethics agency encourages trust in government, she said.

The Coalition for Integrity itself has come under fire for an alleged lack of integrity. A story published earlier this year in the Corporate Crime Reporter, a legal newsletter, called the coalition a “corporate front group,” because of its list of corporate donors, which include Deloitte, Citigroup and PepsiCo.

Shah said companies fund her coalition because of its international work – U.S. companies have a stake in rooting out corruption abroad to get on a “level playing field,” she said. She said corporations that donate have “no insight or influence” over the S.W.A.M.P. rankings or other coalition activities.