Press "Enter" to skip to content

South Dakota Ranks Second in Risk for State Government Corruption

Last updated on 2014.12.09

The Center for Public Integrity conducted an 18-month investigation of transparency and accountability in all fifty state governments. How'd South Dakota do? Not well:

Corruption Scores by state 2012, from Center for Public Integrity

We got an F, as did seven other states. With our 50% score, we did worse than everybody else but Georgia (49%). What gives?

Many of the states at the bottom of the rankings, meanwhile, are sparsely-populated Western or Plains states like Idaho (40th), Wyoming (48th) and the Dakotas (North Dakota is number 43 and South Dakota comes in at 49). There, libertarianism roots, a small-town, neighborly approach to government and the honest belief that 'everybody knows everybody" has overridden any perceived need for strong protections in law.

Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures, noted that ethics laws are shaped by the environment and culture of the state. "In smaller states, the culture is different," she said. "It is harder to disobey the law and go against your own moral core if everyone knows you" [Caitlyn Ginley, "Grading the Nation: How Accountable Is Your State?" Center for Public Integrity, 2012.03.19].

Ah, so it's not that we've got lots of corruption; it's that we're so confident that we don't have corruption that we haven't our faith-based henhouse leaves the door open for serious foxes. States that have dealt with more foxes have better chicken wire: New Jersey gets the highest score, a B+ at 87%, while Illinois, often reviled for "Chicago-style politics," ranks tenth with a C at 74%.

The Center for Public Integrity engaged local reporters in each state to gather data on their state governments. South Dakota's observer was blogger emerita Denise Ross. Here's how her data broke down by category:

In her write-up of our scores, Ross notes Democrat frustration with Republican domination of the redistricting process, but she gives the state good marks for increasing transparency in that process. We also get a B for internal auditing. On everything else on the scorecard, we stink. Some of the major stinkers:

  • lack of a state ethics commission;
  • vague campaign finance reporting;
  • campaign finance loophole allowing unlimited contributions to candidates via Potemkin PACs;
  • closed caucus meetings in the Legislature.

Ross includes comment on the ethics commission from the Governor's chief of staff Dusty Johnson, who says our current policies and our "free and robust press" sufficiently check corruption. Ross also notes that Secretary Gant is making some improvements with online campaign finance information.

Still, that F doesn't look good. Even if we all trust each other, we need strong ethics laws and crystal-clear government transparency to protect our public dollars and institutions from inevitable abuses.


  1. grandma 2012.03.19

    I wish each newspaper in the state would run this! Do you think this same problem trickles down to town/city governments too?

  2. Eve Fisher 2012.03.19

    Mark Twain, "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg."

  3. Stan Gibilisco 2012.03.19

    Cory, a lack of transparency and accountability may correlate positively with the actual existence of corruption. I suspect that it does -- strongly, too. But you insinuate that the two things are identical. They are not.

    Besides that theoretical nit, look at the practical aspect: If a government is opaque as the night is dark, how are we to know for certain how much corruption exists? We cannot obtain the very data that we need. It's the uncertainty principle on steroids.

    Although I highly doubt that very many secretive governments are honest as the nanometer is short, it's theoretically possible.

    On the other hand, I doubt that a government would last very long these days if it were transparent yet corrupt.

    Little slips of logic like this might amount to nothing one by one, but a series of them, cleverly strung together, could lead from soundness to absurdity, from truth to a lie.

    Interestingly, not a single state that I could see got an A in this rating system. Like, we should all be surprised at that result, right?

    We would do well to demand greater transparency and accountability from our government officials, you know, the ones that we elect to serve us. In practice you are right, I think, if you would conclude that such a change would lead to less corruption.

  4. Stan Gibilisco 2012.03.19

    Well, maybe you didn't insinuate that lack of transparency equals corruption. And maybe states can be transparent yet corrupt.

    New Jersey might have a B+ for transparency, but my lifelong quest for a totally corrupt government would not likely cause my feet to redirect and plant themselves permanently in that location.

    Then too, remember "old Chicago" in the gangster years of the last century? Everyone knew what went on, and yet it kept going on.

    Mmmm, New Jersey doesn't look so bad after all.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.03.19

    Transparency means that you can sustain corruption only by extremely sneaky behavior or through force. Stan, you are right on the logical point. This report card is right in saying that transparency decreases the potential for corruption.

    If you accept that reasoning, then, Mom, I'd say local governments may fail the report card even more, since they seem to do worse at publishing their information and because the local press is less robust.

  6. grudznick 2012.03.19

    If a lack of transparency equals corruption, our schools are the most corrupt government agencies we've got.

  7. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.03.19

    ightray, arryLay! ickinfray ingthay antcay ypetay orthway itshay!

    Baloney, Grudz! My classroom is totally transparent. Come on up, watch me teach. I can show you everything I do but the student grades, which are protected by federal law. If there's any lack of transparency, talk to your school board.

  8. Terry 2012.03.27

    I am enjoying reading you. Don't go away. (in Hot Springs)

  9. Steve Sanchez 2012.03.29

    Internal Auditing did receive the highest score in the report. Just sayin'…

  10. mitsi cruz 2013.04.11

    I know first hand the corruption that exists in western South Dakota. The good ol' boy system allows corruption in all of it's social institutions. I am at the mercy of unethical, immature small town networking. Such evil here...

  11. david gascoigne 2014.02.19

    come to brookings Oh my god, it just reeks totalitarianism here. I know the good Ol boys club thrives here

Comments are closed.