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South Dakota Third in Nation in Public Corruption Convictions

Last week I noted that South Dakota ranks second for risk of government corruption, based largely on the lack of government transparency and a statewide ethics board. Gubernatorial chief of staff Dusty Johnson responded in Denise Ross's report that South Dakota already has sufficient ethics policies, enforcement, and "a free and robust press" to check corruption.

Someone must be checking corruption: according to a follow-up analysis by Governing, from 2001 to 2010, South Dakota had the third-highest rate of corruption convictions of public employees proportionate to government workforce:

state anti-corruption index public employee corruption convictions per 10K public employees
Louisiana 72 10.5
Kentucky 71 8.5
South Dakota 50 7.5
Delaware 70 7.2
Mississippi 79 7.1
Alabama 72 7.1
Pennsylvania 71 7.1
North Dakota 58 6.9
New Jersey 87 6.7
Montana 68 6.5
Ohio 66 6.3
Florida 71 6.1
Tennessee 76 6
Virginia 55 5.9
Illinois 74 5.6
Alaska 68 5.2
Massachusetts 74 4.7
West Virginia 68 4.7
Maryland 61 4.4
Arizona 68 4.2
Connecticut 86 4.1
Missouri 72 4.1
Arkansas 68 4
New York 65 3.9
Oklahoma 64 3.9
Michigan 58 3.9
Texas 68 3.8
Rhode Island 74 3.7
Maine 56 3.3
Georgia 49 3.3
Indiana 70 3.2
Hawaii 74 3.1
California 81 2.8
Wisconsin 70 2.8
Vermont 69 2.7
North Carolina 71 2.6
Colorado 67 2.4
New Mexico 62 2.3
Nevada 60 2.3
Wyoming 52 2.2
Iowa 78 2.1
Idaho 61 1.9
New Hampshire 66 1.7
Utah 65 1.7
Minnesota 69 1.6
Washington 83 1.5
Nebraska 80 1.5
South Carolina 57 1.5
Kansas 75 1.3
Oregon 73 1.2

Now note that convictions don't exactly measure the amount of corruption, just the amount of corruption we're willing and able to catch and prove in court. We could try to claim South Dakota's high public corruption conviction rate as a moral badge of honor: everybody knows everybody in our small state, and when someone commits monkey business at the statehouse or the courthouse, we hear about it, and we drop the hammer.

I include here the anti-corruption index from last week's report. I was curious whether the higher risk of corruption might correlate with higher convictions (because the risk translates into actual corrupt behavior?) or with lower convictions (because states with fewer mechanisms for checking corruption don't catch corrupt behavior?). It turns out the correlation is a measly 0.04, meaning the two numbers have little to do with each other. But such a hypothesis doesn't seem to hold across our demographically similar neighbors: North Dakota and Montana join us in the top ten for public corruption conviction rates, but Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa are all in the bottom ten (with Wyoming at 11th). Plus, arguably more urban Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey make the top ten with us.

Whatever the mechanisms behind it, the fact is that South Dakota convicts a higher proportion of its public employees for corruption than all other state except Kentucky and Louisiana. That ranking doesn't mean our public workforce is filled with corrupt individuals—remember, we're talking about not quite six convictions per year out of a workforce that currently stands at nearly 69,000. That's a yearly conviction rate of less than 0.01% of the public workforce. But that's still higher than the relative percentage of voter fraud among the population of registered voters, an issue that various legislators think requires urgent government action.


  1. Stace Nelson 2012.03.26

    If we could only get Chuck Turbiville to apppoint the rest of the investigative bodys that investigate this stuff in SD, our conviction rate would be 0 and we could all declare that the evidence showing such misconduct proves that none happened... :-D

  2. WayneB 2012.03.26

    I don't know if there's more to unpack from this data than what is readily apparent - the number of public sector corruption convictions. These data are not especially helpful - to tell a better story, we would need to see # of investigations and # of charges levied - then we could see how active states are in policing their own, and how ready states are to convict fraud and abuse.

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