Ethics in Your State
Directory of State-based Government Watchdogs
Since 2003, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has closely monitored government ethics, bringing egregious conduct to light and holding public officials accountable for their misconduct. CREW has focused primarily on the federal government, but in 2006, we launched a state-based project called Colorado Ethics Watch (CEW). CEW has been effective in holding public officials and organizations accountable for unethical activities that undermine the integrity of state and local government. CREW lacks the resources, however, to open similar offices in other states. As a result, we have created a directory of state-based groups to assist CREW in identifying, challenging, and deterring unethical conduct by local and state government officials. Public officials held accountable for abusing the public trust at the local level are less likely to reach higher office, where they would wield greater power and have more opportunities to betray the public trust.
Numerous organizations in the states fight to hold state and local government officials accountable. Some national groups, like Common Cause, U.S. PIRG, the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC), and the League of Women Voters (LWV), have affiliates in many states. Other state-level groups have been born and survive because of the initiative of local citizens.
This directory represents the launch of what we hope will be an ongoing project to identify and describe state-based and local organizations that share an interest in integrity and accountability in state and local government. These groups may have different missions, but they share common goals: Some focus on civic education. Others have broad portfolios that include advocacy on a variety of public policy issues. Some focus on campaign finance or election reform. Others work primarily to make government more transparent through the use of freedom-of-information laws. Despite disparate missions, however, many of these groups find that their activities intersect and compliment each other.
Our hope is that this directory will provide state and local activists with the contact information they need to cooperate on projects, to seek out assistance from natural allies in their respective states, and to benefit from the experiences of other activists in their states and across state borders.
CREW also looks forward to collaborating with some of our natural allies. The launch of this project will establish a resource that will benefit CREW, state and local organizations with similar concerns, and citizens seeking accountability and integrity in government.
How We Identified State and Local Watchdog Groups
CREW identified local groups in several ways. Our research staff checked links to some national organizations that have existing networks of state and local affiliates. These groups included:
- Common Cause, which is a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest. Common Cause has 36 state organizations.
- U.S. PIRG, an advocate for the public interest, works on numerous issues, including fostering responsive, democratic government. U.S. PIRG has 26 state chapters.
- The LWV, which fights to improve our system of government and affect public policies through citizen education and advocacy. There are leagues in all 50 states and hundreds of local leagues.
- The NFOIC, an alliance of citizen-driven, nonprofit freedom-of-information organizations; academic and First Amendment centers; journalistic societies; and attorneys. Its goal is to ensure everyone’s right to information. NFOIC has 54 member groups in 46 states.
Other state and local organizations were identified through Google and Nexis searches and through CREW’s observation of state and local events over the years, but we may have overlooked groups. This is not a comprehensive listing of state and local ethics watchdogs but rather the beginning of what we hope will be an ongoing project.
About the Corruption Rankings and the Examples of Corruption
When compiling this list of like-minded organizations, we thought it useful to ascertain the sorts of ethics challenges that have confronted the states, including recent scandals. What is the atmosphere in which state and local activists operate? We did not attempt to write a comprehensive history of corruption in every state but rather offered a few examples of controversies or scandals in each state that have occurred since 2000 and generated news coverage. We relied on two sources of information:
- A recent article in The New York Times that ranked states according to corruption. In December 2008, The Times ranked the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and three United States territories according to three criteria: the number of public officials convicted of federal public corruption charges over the past decade (using data from the U.S. Department of Justice), the same data presented on a per capita basis, and a survey of state house reporters.
- To provide some examples of the sorts of ethical problems found in the states, we executed Nexis searches. We paired the name of each state with any form of the word “corrupt.” We restricted searches to stories published in the past two years that reported on relevant controversies since the year 2000. Most of these searches resulted in hundreds of stories. Our researchers reviewed the top ten to 25 stories and summarized the relevant articles.
What Information Is Included for Each Organization
For each group we identified, we attempted to include information about the group’s mission; contact information, including the name of a senior staff member, an address, a telephone number, an e-mail address, and a website; and any information describing the organization’s resources, capabilities, and accomplishments. We compiled this information as follows:
In most cases, we used the exact language from a mission statement located on the organization’s website. When none was available, we paraphrased the group’s goals, borrowing from elsewhere on its website, from news stories, from an IRS Form 990, or from other information that came to our attention.
We included the name of a senior staff member obtained from the organization’s website or from an IRS Form 990. An address, phone number, e-mail address, and website URL were obtained from the website and/or the Form 990.
Resources, Capabilities, and Accomplishments
We did not attempt to include a comprehensive history of each group’s accomplishments, but we did include a sampling of information gathered from the organization’s website and a Nexis search. Information about revenue and expenses was taken from a recent IRS Form 990. Information about staff members was taken from the group’s own website and from a recent Form 990, when available.
Form 990s were obtained from GuideStar, a nonprofit group that provides information about all tax-exempt organizations registered with the IRS. These data are available at www.guidestar.org. There were many instances when a group had no listing at GuideStar or no Form 990. In other instances, nonprofit groups were not required to file with the IRS because they did not meet the filing requirements. We did not attempt to ascertain whether a group was required to file with the IRS, instead relying on GuideStar’s database. In those instances where GuideStar did not list a particular organization, we noted this in the group’s profile. In instances where GuideStar listed an organization but did not have copies of an IRS Form 990, we so noted. If no staff member information was available on the organization’s website, we noted this fact, as well.
LINKS AND RESOURCES
The “Links and Resources” section of each profile contains hyperlinks to various sites. These sites are either news sources that report on political and ethical stories or are blogs produced by various authors. This section is not meant to be a comprehensive list of useful sites, nor are we recommending or endorsing any of these sites or vouching for their accuracy.
Common Cause is a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest. Common Cause has 36 state organizations.
U.S. PIRG is an advocate for the public interest, working on numerous issues, including fostering responsive, democratic government. U.S. PIRG has 26 state chapters.
The League of Women Voters
The League of Women Voters fights to improve our system of government and affect public policies through citizen education and advocacy. There are leagues in all 50 states and hundreds of local leagues.
The National Freedom of Information Coalition
The National Freedom of Information Coalition is an alliance of citizen-driven, nonprofit freedom-of-information organizations; academic and First Amendment centers; journalistic societies; and attorneys. Its goal is to ensure everyone’s right to information. NFOIC has 54 member groups in 46 states.
City Ethics is a non-profit organization formed to provide a centralized location for information and resources for all forms of local government ethics programs. City Ethics has delivered many programs across the U.S. to help people change the ethical environment of their local governments. It has also created a page for each US State to briefly list the Ethics resources available for that state.
This first version of our state directory is not a comprehensive listing of all potentially relevant organizations but is the first step toward creating such a resource. As a next step, we have begun reaching out directly to these groups and asking for their assistance in amending and updating the information contained in this baseline document.