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Corruption (& perceptions thereof)

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Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

HARRISBURG

Since 2008, Pennsylvania has experienced a crime wave among its top public officials. Unprecedented nationally, eight legislative leaders were in prison at the same time until recently as a result of corruption verdicts. Their convictions included using taxpayers' dollars for political work and campaigns. Seven remain behind bars.

Thirty-eight people with ties to the Capitol were charged by state, federal and local officials. Two were acquitted and one had charges dropped. Despite this sordid chapter in state history, other states, notably Illinois and Louisiana, and perhaps others, have been worse over time.

On a national level, how does the United States fare in the world? How does corruption in this country compare to others? Obviously there's nothing close to a global registrar tracking corruption by public officials. Much of it goes undetected and even conviction data aren't available in some countries.

The watchdog group Transparency International issues an annual report on worldwide corruption. It's about “perceptions” of corruption. The group surveys around 3,000 people, typically businessmen, in about 30 countries.

“Corruption generally comprises illegal activities, which are deliberately hidden and only come to light through scandals, investigations or prosecutions,” the group says on its webpage. “There is no meaningful way to assess absolute levels of corruption in countries or territories on the basis of hard empirical data.”

The 2012 corruption perception index might surprise you. Even if you're pretty cynical, the United States isn't the worst. Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia bring up the rear.

The United States ranks among the 20 nations with the least public corruption, according to the survey. The three lowest were Denmark, Finland and New Zealand.

The U.S. follows Japan and the United Kingdom with the least corruption. At least that's the perception.

Where does corruption breed?

“A government launching a competitive tender, a company setting up operations abroad, a politician raising funds to campaign for office — these are just a few of the areas where corruption can breed. When it does, resources are wasted, the corrupt benefit at the expense of others, and societies suffer,” Transparency International says.

One other breeding ground at the Pennsylvania state Capitol: long-term service in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, where leaders became insulated. Rank-and-file legislators over the long haul tend to abdicate power. That breeds feelings of entitlement and arrogance among leaders. Then comes the volatile mix with campaign money.

At least in the recent scandals, maintaining power in the state House drove scandals among Republican and Democrats. Desperate to cling to power, previous leaders stepped up the use of taxpayers' money to pay for campaigns. Why? Because it's easier. They have easy access. Garnering campaign money involves hours of work on the phone or by staff in setting up a fundraiser.

It's certainly not as easy as dipping in to the taxpayers' cookie jar.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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