ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Is New Mexico the most corrupt state?
I’ve often heard people argue that it is, especially newcomers who seem to automatically think the places they came from were cleaner.
With new allegations of public official corruption seeming to crop up in New Mexico almost every week, I’ve been searching for measurements.
We got off to an early start. One of the state’s first two United States senators, Albert B. Fall, resigned in 1921 to accept appointment as U.S. interior secretary and soon after was convicted of conspiracy and bribery in the Teapot Dome oil lease scandal up in Wyoming.
This state of affairs seemed to peak in 2006 with the convictions of two former state treasurers, Robert Vigil and Michael Montoya, in extortion and kickback cases involving state contracts and investments.
You certainly would have hoped it crested in 2007 with the Metropolitan Courthouse scandal, when former state Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon, former Albuquerque Mayor Ken Schultz, former Metro Court Administrator Toby Martinez and others were busted for their roles in skimming millions from the construction of a new court building in Downtown Albuquerque.
But other investigations are ongoing, involving at least two branches of New Mexico government, and the record could get worse.
A former secretary of state and a public regulation commissioner are awaiting trial on corruption charges. A state District Court judge is under indictment for bribery.
Civil lawsuits allege millions of dollars in “bogus” fees were paid to politically connected insiders in connection with state investment decisions.
A bid-rigging investigation that didn’t result in charges but in a pronouncement by prosecutors that the process had been corrupted knocked Bill Richardson out of an appointment as President Barack Obama’s secretary of commerce.
Despite all this, I have what might be surprising findings for you on the “most corrupt” question. I also have to note some complications that leave the question a little muddy.
First of all, public corruption is all over the map, so to speak, and New Mexico usually seems to come up short in 50-state rankings.
Second, numbers might be flawed, and they certainly don’t tell the whole story.
Third, statistical measurements might be irrelevant, given that we probably all would agree that any corruption is too much.
Meanwhile, no national comparison considers the New Mexico phenomenon I call “We don’t get it,” or behavior that might fall short of crime but is at least ethically dubious.
An example cropped up just last week with reports that the mayor of Sunland Park acknowledged he was drunk when he signed contracts calling for $1 million in city work.
The best study I found on the “most corrupt state” question was by the online magazine The Daily Beast in 2010, prepared by Clark Merrefield with assistance from Lauren Streib and using federal data.
It weighted equally, however, the data for public corruption, racketeering and extortion, forgery and counterfeiting, fraud and embezzlement. For the public corruption rankings, it surveyed the states for an 11-year period, 1998-2008.
New Mexico didn’t come close to the top of the “most corrupt states” in the overall rankings. The Daily Beast had us at No. 45 among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The New York Times produced a similar report in 2008. The top six states in its rankings for federally convicted public officials were Florida, New York, Texas and Pennsylvania, with California and Ohio tying for fifth place. New Mexico, with 30 convicted officials in the 1998-2007 review, came in 48th.
In the Daily Beast report, with all categories of corruption weighted equally, the top five “most corrupt” states were Tennessee, Virginia, Mississippi, Delaware and North Carolina. The five lowest on the list of 51 were No. 47 Illinois, then Wyoming, Indiana, Montana and New Hampshire.
New Mexico was not even high among the 51 in the “public corruption” category in the Daily Beast survey, ranking 41st in convictions of public officials investigated by federal agents from 1998-2008.
The District of Columbia topped the public corruption category, with Alaska, North Dakota, Louisiana and Mississippi the next four in line. Nebraska was lowest in the nation on this score.
But let’s not get carried away. These statistics don’t account for how determined or passive prosecutors might be state-to-state. They don’t consider aggressiveness of the media in revealing wrongdoing state-to-state.
You and I might also have subjective ideas about what makes one state seem more corrupt than another.
Illinois, for instance, ranked 47th in the overall corruption rankings in The Daily Beast list and 16th in public corruption convictions over the 1998-2008 period. But it might look different if you look deeper. Rod Blagojevich, The Daily Beast noted, was the seventh Illinois governor to be arrested on corruption charges since 1850.
Certainly nothing to brag about, despite the overall numbers. And not matched by New Mexico.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to John Robertson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 823-3911. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal