Idaho got a near-failing grade in a watchdog group’s latest state-by-state review of ethics, transparency, oversight and accountability in government — a rigorous survey in which only three states received at least a C grade and 11 states failed outright.
Idaho’s D- grade puts it about middle of the pack among states in the 2015 review by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative reporting group that released its findings Monday. The state got the same grade in the group’s 2012 survey, when it ranked 41st.
It rose to 26th in the rankings this year because other states did worse, largely due to changes in this year’s methodology.
“It’s nothing to cheer about,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, who is seeking bipartisan support for stronger ethics legislation.
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As in 2012, when CPI conducted it first survey, Idaho was penalized the most for lacking financial disclosure requirements throughout government and other accountability measures, such as restrictions on where officials may work after they leave government — the so-called cooling-off period. Idaho remains one of only three states without disclosure requirements for elected officials — information on assets, sources of income and business interests that could create conflicts.
Lack of disclosure earned the state failing grades for accountability in all three government branches.
It also failed on measures of ethics enforcement, largely due to its limited authority to investigate complaints.
I think there has to be a culture of ethics in government and that culture needs to be promoted by the public, by the press and by top officials.
Rakesh Mohan, director of the Idaho Office of Performance Evaluations
Idaho also lacks a stand-alone agency to oversee ethics laws, with those duties variously assigned throughout the government . For example, ethics enforcement in the Legislature is handled by committees in each house.
On the plus side, Idaho scored high for transparency and accountability in its budget process, oversight of elections and campaign finance disclosure, and its auditing procedures. The openness of the state budgeting process earned an A, second-best in the nation. And some progress toward more open government and accountability has been made in recent years.
In 2014, lawmakers passed a law authorizing the state attorney general to investigate corruption complaints against elected county officials. Also in 2014, Gov. Butch Otter created the office of public records ombudsman to oversee policies and handle complaints involving executive agencies.
Idaho also created a website, transparent.idaho.gov, that provides access to state records and reports on workforce numbers, revenues and expenditures, and other areas of government.
“Regulatory bodies and government institutions implementing rules of conduct and standards of behavior in public life that promote openness and transparency all are important means to an end,” Otter said in a statement. “But unless the people are involved in their government, none of those high-visibility steps will matter. Like every other state, Idaho can and must strive to keep doing better.”
RECENT STATE LAPSES
The CPI survey comes at time of heightened attention and scrutiny on ethics and accountability in Idaho, following prominent and costly contracting mistakes, lawsuits, and allegations of favoritism and incompetence. Among these was last year’s collapse of the state’s education broadband network, which has cost Idaho millions — including nearly $1 million in legal costs — although cheaper replacement contracts for broadband service have netted some savings.
The contracting issues helped force the exit of the head of the state’s contracting agency last spring and prompted the Legislature to create a committee to review state contracting and procurement procedures.
The CPI’s data-based survey scored 13 areas of government operations based on 245 separate metrics. The 2015 ratings are not easily compared to the 2012 findings because of changes in categories and measures. But the 2015 survey appears to be tougher. In 2012, five states received B grades, half scored better than a D and just seven failed. This year, just three states graded out as high as C, 36 scored D’s and 11 failed.
How can people know whether lawmakers are representing the public’s interest or their own interests if they don’t know what those lawmakers’ interests are?
Nicholas Kusnetz of the Center for Public Integrity
“Overall it was more rigorous this time in terms of making sure that answers were consistent across states,” said Nicholas Kusnetz, who managed the project for CPI.
“It’s obviously hard to draw a generalization across 50 states, because there certainly are states that have enacted some reforms since then. But you do see increasing moves towards secrecy, more exemptions added to open records laws. a greater inclination to delay or reject open records requests. I think that’s one trend that is happening across a number of states.”
DISCLOSURE IS ‘BEST PRACTICE’ IN MOST STATES
Access to public information in Idaho, although earning a grade of D-, actually put Idaho sixth among all states. Right of access to information was a plus, but handling of appeals when information requests are rejected was a minus. Except for the advisory role of the governor’s ombudsman, the only recourse to appeal a lack of response or denial is to file a lawsuit.
Lack of disclosure in all branches of government, as well as for lobbyists, contractors, investment fund managers and civil service administrators, repeatedly crops up.
“That has certainly become a best practice, particularly with part-time legislatures, where you have lawmakers who for some or most of the time are doctors, ranchers, lawyers,” Kusnetz said. “How can people know whether lawmakers are representing the public’s interest or their own interests if they don’t know what those lawmakers’ interests are?”
The report measures both what is written into law and how well those laws are followed. Both are important, said Rakesh Mohan, director of the Office of Performance Evaluations. OPE and the Legislative Audit Division are the two official auditing agencies of state government.
“You can have rules and policies but still there could be lots of problems,” he said. “I think there has to be a culture of ethics in government and that culture needs to be promoted by the public, by the press and by top officials.”
Mohan said he filed financial disclosure statements every two years when he worked as a principal evaluator for the Washington Legislature, as did everyone else — from the director to entry-level evaluators.
“I never felt like that was an onerous requirement,” Mohan said. “I felt like I had nothing to hide and I wanted people to be able to trust me and I should be able to trust other people.”
Rusche plans to introduce legislation to create an office of Inspector General to investigate state ethics complaints. The same proposal died in the last session, but he hopes to win broader support, including from the Republican majority.
“What happens when you start something, and particularly when you start it as a Democrat, is it’s viewed as an attack on the governor, the Republican Party, the Republican Legislature, and then it becomes a team game instead of a ‘What’s right for the state’ game,” Rusche said.
“The biggest thing I’d like to know is why don’t the people of Idaho view this as an issue — they’re much more concerned about whether you can carry your gun on campus than whether the government is open, transparent, competent and honest. We have a structure that allows (ethics lapses) and we have the evidence that it happens. Why aren’t people out there which pitchforks and torches demanding change?”
About the Center for Public Integrity
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit investigative news organization founded in 1989 by journalist Charles Lewis. In addition to its mission statement, the center publishes its annual reports, tax returns, corporate documents and list of funders online.