America’s most corrupt state defends itself

July 28, 2014, 1:49 PM UTC
Mississippi welcome sign
Mississippi welcome sign
Thomas R Machnitzki/Wikimedia

The entire world must contend with corruption. It costs honest citizens thousands of dollars per year and saps trust in public and private institutions.

We’ve all experienced corruption on at least a small scale at some point in our lives, but actually measuring it is difficult. Recently, Fortune covered a study by two public policy researchers—Cheol Liu of the City University of Hong Kong and John L. Mikesell of Indiana University—who looked the rate at which public employees in each of the 50 U.S. states had been convicted on federal corruption charges from 1976 to 2008 to determine which state was the most corrupt in the union.

Their conclusion? Mississippi, The Hospitality State, has not been all that hospitable to its citizens over the past 30-plus years, according to the study. The state had the highest ratio of public workers who were censured for misuse of public funds and other charges.

The researchers looked at the hard numbers—federal convictions—to control for differences in spending on law enforcement and the rigor of state corruption laws.

While these numbers don’t lie, Mississippi officials were none too pleased to top this list. As the state’s top corruption fighter, Mississippi State Auditor Stacey Pickering argued in an interview with Fortune that the study relied on old data and didn’t take into account the state’s anti-corruption efforts.

“This is dated material that goes back to 1976 until 2008, the year I was sworn into office,” said Pickering.

Pickering argued that many Mississippi laws have changed since then, with the state legislature putting in an investigative arm into the state auditors office. “I’m the only state auditor in the entire country that has a law enforcement function. I’ve actually got a division in my office of gun totin’, badge wearin’ CPAs, lawyers, and investigators,” he said.

This allows Pickering to more aggressively pursue white-collar criminals. Pickering also argued that, since he often works with federal officials when pursuing crooked public servants, the fact that his state has convicted more than its fair share could be a sign not just of greater corruption but simply that Mississippi has taken a tougher stand against it.

Pickering has a point. Since the study goes back 30 years and doesn’t examine trends in these sorts of crimes, it’s quite possible that the worst of Mississippi’s corruption is in the past. The paper also didn’t look at the structure of governance to see how states were responding to corruption. Pickering points to another study done by Rutgers University’s Center for Public Integrity, which ranked Mississippi as the sixth least corrupt state in the U.S.

To be sure, the Rutgers study and the Liu-Mikesell analysis were measuring two different things. The Liu-Mikesell paper looked at actual convictions, while the Rutgers study took a subjective look at laws, regulations, and governance structure to grade each state on how hospitable they were to corruption. But of course there’s more the problem than laws on the books. You can take a tough stance against corruption with strong laws and lots of funding for law enforcement, but if the culture of a place is more prone to corruption, it may take a long time for those efforts to yield any benefits.

Also, even though Mississippi ranked as the 6th least corrupt state in the country, Rutgers’ Center for Public Integrity only gave the state an overall C+ grade; meaning, if anything, the state’s laws are only good by comparison.

That being said, Mississippi should be praised for efforts it has recently taken to combat the malfeasance that has been so prevalent in its state. As Pickering pointed out, his office received the National State Auditor Association (NSAA) Excellence in Accountability Award for a Special Project in 2012, for its efforts to minimize fraud during both the post-Katrina rebuilding efforts and during the spending of the 2009 stimulus package money. Pickering’s office will also receive the David M. Walker Excellence in Government Performance and Accountability Award, sponsored by the National Intergovernmental Audit Forums and the Government Accountability Office for its efforts in fighting fraud during times when the federal government was spending big dollars in the state.

But at the end of the day, any way you cut it, Mississippi has had far too many corruption convictions over the past 30 years. The state is making strides, however, and perhaps in a decade we’ll see the fruits of that labor.

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