Washington tops all states in anti-corruption ranking

By Kellen Browning

McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON, D.C. —Washington state may share a name with the nation’s capital, but there’s no big swamp that needs to be drained in the Pacific Northwest, according to a new independent ranking of anti-corruption laws.

The state topped the inaugural S.W.A.M.P. Index’s list of states with tough corruption laws, impressing analysts from the Coalition for Integrity with the strength of its ethics agency and measures to prevent lobbyists from plying elected officials with gifts.

Washington scored 78 points out of 100, narrowly edging out California and Rhode Island (75 points each) for the top spot. Still, Coalition for Integrity CEO Shruti Shah said, there’s always room for improvement.

“It’s a good start,” said Shah, who runs the nonpartisan advocacy group that analyzes state laws governing ethics agencies, gift-giving and campaign contribution reporting.

The S.W.A.M.P. Index, which stands for States With Anti-Corruption Measures for Public Officials, found that Washington’s ethics boards overseeing the executive and legislative branches can open investigations, hold hearings and subpoena people if they learn about potential ethical violations. The boards can also levy fines and recommend suspension or prosecution.

“Having a strong ethics regime kind of serves as a model for good behavior,” Shah said. “It encourages people’s trust in government. It lets public officials know that this is the standard that we have to adhere to.”

Elected and appointed legislators and executives in Washington are barred from accepting more than $50 worth of gifts each year, the coalition said, and must disclose the names of corporations in which they have stakes. Political committees also must disclose the names of their donors.

Washington lost points because its ethics boards, whose members are protected from being removed without cause, do not have the power to suspend or punish wrongdoers, other than by issuing fines, the coalition said.

The state was also criticized because the coalition found that some groups that contribute to political campaigns —limited liability companies and nonprofits —do not have to disclose owner or donor information.

Kate Reynolds, executive director of the state’s Executive Ethics Board, said Washington ethics agencies were happy to be ranked first in the country.

“I think we have a nice, robust set of laws, so I’m glad to see that was recognized,” Reynolds said. “I think it’s always nice to have someone on the outside take a look at your rules and give some feedback on it.”

She said she couldn’t think of how Washington ethics laws need to be improved.

At the other end of the anti-corruption spectrum, North Dakota scored zero points on the S.W.A.M.P. Index, followed by Wyoming (12 points) and Idaho (16 points).

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 the 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.