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Out of Harrisburg's glare

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Contact Colin McNickle (412-320-7836 or

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Saturday, July 14, 2012, 8:55 p.m.


Various studies show that Pennsylvania is not the nation's most corrupt state. It just seems to be that way given the run of public-corruption cases over the past four years.

There have been more than 30 in the state Legislature and another 30 or so in Northeastern Pennsylvania involving contractors and local and county officials and judges.

Sure feels like we're No. 1. But Pennsylvania has been ranked 10th, 13th and 18th in corruption in recent studies, according to a comprehensive report on the Pennsylvania Legislature by Temple University.

But it's hard to give these individual studies much credence. One report ranked states lower if they had a proliferation of corruption because of rules and laws passed to combat it. That makes no sense unless you really believe new laws stop corruption cold.

Put all the surveys aside. Illinois is No. 1 in corruption. It's the Big Bad Boy. It's had four governors convicted of crimes since 1973, most recently Rod Blagojevich, who was involved in multiple pay-to-play schemes.

Since the days of Boss Tweed, New York has been a perennial contender. And Louisiana ranks right up there solely for having corrupt Gov. Edwin Edwards convicted of racketeering in 2001 after beating two raps earlier.

New Jersey, for its years of organized crime control and corruption scandals, ranks up there, too.

We fall in after those states.

The Temple study touches on what it is that makes states more corrupt than others.

We've heard most before — that it's simply cyclical or a function of Pennsylvania's “individualistic” culture or the overall number of elected officials.

The Temple study includes mention of the 1966 research by James Q. Wilson, supported by a faculty working paper this year by Felix Campante and Quoc-Anh Do at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School: Isolated state capitals contribute to corruption.

I just heard that theory a week or so ago from former state Aging Secretary Linda Rhodes in an interview on an unrelated topic. And she believes it.

With the key population centers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, in the middle of the state, is almost an afterthought. In Philadelphia, Harrisburg is on the frontier of Pennsyltucky, almost another state.

That translates into less public scrutiny by the state's major media organizations and a less demanding public.

Lawmakers from Philly and Pittsburgh suddenly find themselves in the slower lane of Harrisburg, elevated because of their status in the General Assembly, with taxpayers' money to burn in the form of per diems and special leadership accounts, and adoring staffers afraid to tell them “no.”

Until the 2005 pay raise, the Legislature with impunity kept the public virtually locked out of how it spent $300 million a year. Its spending still is not totally transparent.

So the isolated state capital theory, in Pennsylvania's case, might be a contributing factor, along with the state's long-standing political culture of an acceptance of corruption.

It could be true in Albany, N.Y., far removed from the fast-paced and intense media scrutiny of the Big Apple.

In the past it might have applied to Sacramento and its distance from population centers of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. But its rapid growth of late makes it a metro area of 1.9 million.

The theory falls apart in the case of Springfield, Ill. Whatever scandals emerge there, it's hard to top the corrupt political culture of Chicago.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. (717-787-1405 or

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