Capitol Alert

Are political swamps in California and Washington mostly drained? This study says they are.

California ranks second in the nation for anti-corruption laws, according to a new report from nonpartisan corruption watchdog Coalition for Integrity.

California shares that second-place designation with Rhode Island; both states fell behind Washington state, which claimed the best score in the 2018 States With Anti-Corruption Measures for Public Officials (S.W.A.M.P.) Index.

The S.W.A.M.P. Index looks at eight metrics when assigning a score to a state, including whether there is an ethics agency with subpoena and sanction power, whether members of that agency are shielded from removal without cause, and whether elected and appointed executive branch officials are prohibited from accepting high-dollar gifts from lobbyists.

“The index is not based on perceptions, but is an objective analysis,” Laurie Sherman, a policy adviser for the coalition, said in a statement. “We evaluated current state laws and regulations governing ethics and transparency in the executive and legislative branches.”

Shruti Shah, coalition president, said in a statement that the index “highlights that there are many gaps and loopholes in state laws and regulations governing ethics and transparency issues.”

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The coalition found that California’s laws offer other states an example of best practices to follow. However, because the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the state ethics agency, does not have the power to terminate, suspend, censure, demote or reprimand officials, and because “the gift rules could be stronger,” the coalition found that “there is still room for improvement in California’s legal framework.”

The 2018 index is “a pretty good starting point,” said Emelyn Rodriguez, a political and elections law attorney and former senior counsel for the FPPC.

Rodriguez said that education of public officials is a key part of an ethics agencies, “so I would have liked to see an educational component included in the scoring.”

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She also said that the analysis should “go to the next level” and also look at whether ethics agencies receive adequate funding and whether they vigorously enforce state ethics rules.

“It’s important to have laws with teeth, but it’s also vital to have agencies that are willing and able to use them,” she said.

Kati Phillips, a spokeswoman for California Common Cause, said the index shows there’s work still to be done in the Golden State.

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“We’ve worked to drain the swamp in California, but we still have our share of alligators,” she said.

She said the index results for California were not surprising, and that while California leads the country “when it comes to ethics and transparency reform,” the state needs to tighten up gift-giving and lobbying disclosure rules.

Phillips said that includes requiring “closer to real-time reporting” for significant lobbying expenditures” and reducing the gift limit from its current cap of $470.

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“Legislators are well-paid and should not be accepting gifts of this size from special interests,” she said.

Phillips added that certain gifts, like travel, have no monetary cap and “are poorly regulated and routinely abused.”

At the other end of the spectrum, the S.W.A.M.P. Index rated North Dakota as worst in the nation for ethics and transparency laws, followed by Wyoming and Idaho.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7934, @andrewsheeler
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