You Can’t Fight A Corrupt Government with More Government
Sunday, April 22, 2012
Standard Article by Rob Port
Issue: Government Transparency

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A recent study into state transparency and accountability laws ranked North Dakota as one of the most at risk states for corruption. Bizarrely, though, the study - commissioned by a liberal group called the Center for Public Integrity and executed in ND by Forum Communications reporter Teri Finneman - ranked New Jersey as one of the least at risk for corruption.

This doesn’t pass the smell test, given New Jersey’s well-documented problems with corruption, but this isn’t the first time North Dakota has gotten poor marks on a study like this. A similar study in 2008 concluded that North Dakota was more corrupt than Illinois which, at the time, was living through a scandal involving former Governor Rod Blagojevich trying to sell President Obama’s old Senate seat to the highest bidder.

That study had a local group headed by well-known liberal activist Don Morrison touting the results which got national attention, much as the 2012 iteration did.

I think it’s hard for most honest observers to believe that North Dakota, while far from perfect on the issues of transparency and accountability, is even in the same area code as states like New Jersey and Illinois when it comes to corruption. So why is it that the Flickertail state gets such poor grades in these reports?

It’s because of the criteria these studies use. They claim that because North Dakota doesn’t require the disclosure of campaign expenditures, because we have no state ethics board, the state is corrupt. Or, at least, at risk for corruption.

But we should ask ourselves, how are these measures working to protect Illinois and New Jersey from corruption? Not very well it seems.

I’ll not argue against requirements for more campaign disclosures in the state - I don’t think they would hurt at all - but the issue of a state ethics panel seems to be something for which there is an increasing amount of support.

In the last legislative session state Rep. Corey Mock pushed a bill, backed widely by Democrats, which would have created such a panel. In the paper’s April 6th editorial written by Tom Dennis, the Grand Forks Herald argued that a lawsuit filed by environmental groups against two members of the Public Service Commission - Brian Kalk and Kevin Cramer, both of whom also happen to be running for the US House - arguing that they took illegal gifts from the coal industry was evidence for the need of that sort of a panel.

Yet, both Illinois and New Jersey have state ethics panels. Are those states less corrupt for their existence? The evidence says no. Our federal Congress, too, has its various ethics committees yet that hardly seems to slow down the graft happening in Washington DC. One need look no further than the Senate Ethics Committee exonerating Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, and North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad, from wrong-doing in the now-infamous Countrywide VIP loans scandal to see that ethics committees often don’t result in ethical government.

Rather than creating a panel that would almost certainly be used more often for political gamesmanship and partisan witch hunts than promoting honest governance, why not recognize that the ultimate ethics panel is the people expressing their will through the ballot box?

One reason why North Dakota’s government - despite irritating these liberal activists by not having the same ethics mechanisms of those states - is much more ethical than that of New Jersey or Illinois is because the state’s small size lends itself to a sort of inherent transparency.

We all know the cliches about small towns, and everybody having their nose in everybody else’s business. The same goes for small state governments. North Dakota’s politicians have a hard time getting away with the sort of graft their counterparts in New Jersey and Illinois get away with because our government is smaller and easier to scrutinize.

Where legislators in other states have staffs full of flunkies to run interference between them and the public, our state leaders put their home phone numbers on the internet. If you friend one of them on Facebook they’ll likely accept your request so that you can interact with them amid their posts about family birthdays and Farmville requests.

Perhaps that level of transparency and accountability is only possible in a small state like North Dakota. It no doubt doesn’t scale well to larger constituencies. But there is a lesson in it. The smaller the government is, the more transparent and accountable it is.

Or, at Tacitus put it, “laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt.”

Corruption indexes directly to the size of government. The larger the government is, the more corrupt it will become. Thus, rather than layering on more government in the form of ethics committees and the like, the solution for less government is simply less government.

Rob Port is an NDPC Government Transparency & Accountability Policy Fellow.