Calling Campaign Legal Center: Incorruptible Oregon refuses to get with the program

A couple weeks ago, the Campaign Legal Center’s lobbyist, Meredith McGehee, took the pages of The Hill to excoriate Virginia for not passing more campaign finance restrictions. Because Virginia has “few restrictions on money in campaigns,” the ethics and bribery trial of former Governor Bob McDonnell, she assured her readers, was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Absent more restrictions on campaign finance, “we had better get used to” a lot more McDonnell-type trials.

We pointed out here that McGehee’s column was fundamentally dishonest, conflating McDonnell’s corruption – for which he is, after all, on trial – with the need for more campaign finance restrictions, even though McDonnell’s alleged ethical breaches did not stem from campaign contributions. We also noted that faux “reformers” such as McGehee never consider whether ethical scandals in heavily regulated states should lead us to question the value of regulation, even when those scandals come directly from campaign finance systems, such as misuse of government provided campaign funds.

Now The Washington Post reports that researchers at Indiana University at Bloomington and the City University of Hong Kong have concluded that Oregon is the “Best State in America,” at least when it comes to fending off public corruption. Surely something is amiss – why, Oregon – like Virginia – is one of just four states that places no limits on the size or source of contributions directly to politicians political campaigns. Worse still, Utah, another of the 4 states with no contribution limits, was also among the 10 least corrupt states.

We have noted many times in the past that Governing Magazine has long given deregulated states high marks for their quality of governance. Now we find they do pretty well on the corruption scale, too. We eagerly await an article from the Campaign Legal Center on how, if we enact their regulatory agenda, we can expect corruption to increase.


Below is how the IU/City Univ. of Hong Kong study ranks the 11 states that place no limit on personal contributions (note Oregon, Utah, Virginia, and Missouri have no contribution limits at all – the other states have no individual contribution limits). The average ranking for these eleven states is 26.5, or right about in the middle, but the cohort is over-represented in both the top and the bottom, with three of the best seven but also three of the worst six. It should be noted that New Mexico, which had no contribution limits for the time covered by this study (1997-2008) ranked 23rd.

And, finally, the study provides some further vindication for Citizens United. States that banned corporate independent expenditures during the time covered by the study (pre-Citizens United) had an average rank of 27.3, or worse than those that did not limit corporate independent spending pre-Citizens United, and also slightly more corrupt than those that had no limits on individual contributions. Three of the four least corrupt states in this study, and seven of the ten least corrupt, did not ban corporate expenditures during this period.

1. Oregon

5. Iowa

7. Utah

16. Indiana

19. Texas

34. Virginia

35. Missouri

37. North Dakota

45. Alabama

46. Pennsylvania

50. Mississippi


  1. The methodology of the study finding low corruption in Oregon is backwards. It measures corruption by the number of convictions in each state for corruption-type offenses. That is not a measure of corruption; it is a measure of corruption fighting.

    These sorts of studies (including this one) nearly always find that Oregon is not very corrupt. But Oregon has no limits on campaign contributions, for example. So a corporate contribution of $1 million (or any amount) to any candidate here is legal. The same contribution in most other states would be illegal and would be categorized as a corruption-type offense. This study concludes that the lack of such law makes Oregon less corrupt. I argue it makes Oregon more corrupt.

    The study makes no sense. It is like saying that, if murder was legal in Michigan, then Detroit would be the safest city in America. After all, there would be zero convictions for murder there, if murder were legal.

    The Center for Public Integrity/PRI corruption study has a better methodology. See It used the high number of convictions in New Jeresey to rank that state as the top state in fighting corruption. The new study ranks it 31 in corruption. The CPI/PRI study has this top 10. The number in parenthesis is the state’s ranking in the new study. Note in particular New Jersey, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

    1st New Jersey (31)
    2nd Connecticut (22)
    3rd Washington (2)
    4th California (20)
    5th Nebraska (7)
    6th Mississippi (49)
    7th Iowa (6)
    8th Tennessee (45)
    9th Rhode Island (24)
    10th Kansas (11)

    The new study has this top 10, with the CPI/PRI ranking in parenthesis. Note the differences for Oregon, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Utah, Colorado, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

    Oregon (14)
    Washington (2)
    Minnesota (25)
    New Hampshire (35)
    Utah (36)
    Iowa (7)
    Nebraska (5)
    Colorado (33)
    Vermont (26)
    Wisconsin (24)

    In sum, convictions for corruption-type offenses is not a measure of corruption, particularly if the state allows “legal corruption,” such as unlimited political campaign contributions. The absence of convictions more likely means that (1) the state lacks laws against corruption or (2) the state fails to enforce its laws against corruption.

  2. Joe Trotter says:


    If a state criminalizes all sorts of things and then finds they have more people to prosecute, it does not mean the state is better at fighting corruption. New Jersey has, time and time again, despite its “anti-corruption laws,” proven to be one of the most corrupt states in the nation. In fact, the over criminalization of political activity is probably, on some level, at fault for why New Jersey is so corrupt.


  3. Brad Smith says:

    Any study that ranks New Jersey and Connecticut 1-2 as having the least political corruption seems rather self-evidently flawed.

    In fact, it’s Dan, and CPI, that work backwards. Dan’s definition of corruption, of course, it to say that it is per se corrupt not to have campaign finance laws. It’s a bit like saying that Hawaii has the nation’s worst weather, because the definition of good weather means lots of snow. Likewise, if you say a state is corrupt if it doesn’t have strong campaign finaance law. then assuredly states without campaign finance laws will be deemed “more corrupt.” But this seems to confuse ends with means. Campaign finance restrictions are intended to prevent corruption, not to define it.

    Further, violations of campaign finance laws make up a small portion of the total workload of the Public Integrity unit. One might read the full study to see the authors defend their criteria against critiques such as that of Mr. Meeks. Dan’s understanding of the study is incorrect. The authors do not claim that Oregon’s lack of contribution restrictions makes it less corrupt. The authors explain:

    ” The PIS data include a wide array of crimes: accepting bribes, awarding government contracts to vendors without competitive bidding, accepting kickbacks from private entities engaged in or pursuing business with the government, overstating travel expenses or hours worked, selling information on criminal histories and law enforcement information to private companies, mail fraud, using government credit cards for personal purchases, sexual misconduct, falsifying official documents, theft of government computer equipment for an international computer piracy group, extortion, robbery, and soliciting bribes by police officers, possession with intent to distribute narcotics, and smuggling illegal aliens.”

    The argument Ms. McGehee made – and reformers frequently make – is that these sorts of crimes (which include the charges against former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell) are related to the lack of strict campaign finance laws. The data doesn’t seem to bear that out at all.

    And this, by the way, is exactly the bait and switch we’re talking about. One might argue – as Dan does – that contributing to campaigns is itself a form of “corruption.” There’s not really much data that supports that theory, but OK, one can make the argument. But reformers such as McGehee take real, traditional corruption – acceptance of bribes, kickbacks, funneling contracts to family members, abuse of expense accounts, etc.- and argue that these illustrate the need for more campaign finance restrictions. Not so.

    Demonstrating that that link asserted by McGehee and other regulatory advocates isn’t there leaves campaign finance laws to stand on their own merits. Does heavy regulation lead to better government? This is a question about which “reformers” seems strangely uninterested – perhaps because however one defines “good government,” it’s hard to fine a correlation, let alone causation, with campaign finance regulation.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.