Thursday, March 19, 2015

Idaho State Controller's Office Strikes Back at U.S. PIRG Report on Online Data Transparency

Posted By on Thu, Mar 19, 2015 at 1:30 PM

  • U.S. PIRG
The Idaho Office of the State Controller pushed back March 18 against a United States Public Interest Research Group report that gave Idaho an "F" for online state data transparency.

"[U.S. PIRG] has no credibility with our office," said Chief Deputy Controller Dan Goicoechea.

The report, titled "Following the Money 2015: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data," is the nonprofit's sixth annual report rating the completeness and ease of use of each state's online information about how they spend taxpayer dollars, including corporate tax incentives, purchasing goods and services, and state contracts.

Each state was given a letter grade and Idaho joined Alaska and California among states that received an "F" for not meeting multiple transparency standards—including not giving the public online access to data on tax subsidies for economic development or tax expenditure reports.

When U.S. PIRG researchers offered states their findings, the report said that the Gem State was one of three states that did not give researchers feedback, but Goicoechea said that his office never heard from researchers about their conclusions.

“They gave us an ‘F’ without any comment at all,” he said.

Goicoechea was quick to condemn the report, saying that it used a single rubric to judge states’ online transparency access regardless of their economic profiles or statutory differences.

“We don't have any respect for their rating system,” Goicoechea said. “It tries to apply one template to all 50 states without looking at the laws that pertain to those states.” 

In other words, a measure of what counts as transparency in Texas or Pennsylvania may not be applicable in Idaho, and vice versa. Beyond that, however, is the question of user experience: Is the public satisfied with what and how information can be accessed? Goicoechea said the answer is “yes.”

“I’ve been here 13 years. In all our years, not once have we had one citizen complain that they could not get the information they needed,” he said.

Idaho's online portal to state government data is Transparent Idaho, which was launched in 2013 and designed to make state government data available to the public. Despite the website, Idaho's U.S. PIRG transparency grade fell from a "C" in 2013 to an "F" in 2014.

"Idaho's transparency websites fail in part because they do not provide any information on the recipients of economic development subsidies. Additionally, Idaho does not link to tax expenditure reports from its portal."

U.S. PIRG "Following the Money 2015" 
Following the Money 2015 Read the report here.
While U.S. PIRG Senior Analyst Phineas Baxandall said Idaho has made strides in making more information available online, the state still has work to do making systems that make accessing that information more user friendly. For instance, being able to determine what information is and is not available online could be a step forward for the state.

“We think that there can be legitimate reasons why a state might not put up every dollar. But at least listing what kinds of things, what agencies are excluded, is essential for having a debate about where those boundaries should be,” he said.

That would mean doing what Ohio has done in the past year—making more information available online while also adding keyword searches and an auto-filling feature to its transparency website search bar. In 2014, U.S. PIRG gave the Buckeye State a “D-.” This year, it received an “A+.”

Baxandall said that Idaho’s path to a better grade on next year’s report could be similar to Ohio’s. While some Idaho information, like state economic development subsidies and vendor-specific spending information, can still be tricky to find, Transparent Idaho’s ease of use could be improved.

“We look at search because you can't find out something without search capabilities,” he said. “Can you search by department? Keyword? Then we look at things such as off-budget agencies, economic development subsidies. Are those kinds of things also listed?”

For U.S. PIRG, a portion of the significance of public access to state data is starting conversations about how money and resources are used. It’s part of how the public holds state government accountable—and a way for  the public to sniff out corruption.

According to the 2012 State Integrity Investigation, Idaho scored a “D-,” making it  the ninth most corrupt state in the U.S.

Part of that score was a “C-,” or 72 percent, for public access to information, including a score of 75 percent for the legal right of citizens to access information and 69 percent for the effectiveness of that access.

Corruption can mean many things to many people—not least of all the people who measure corruption. The State Integrity Investigation used 14 criteria to grade states' risk of corruption, including public access to information; executive, legislative and judicial accountability; ethics enforcement; state budget processes; and civil service management.

Another corruption report from 2014, “The Impact of Public Officials’ Corruption on the Size and Allocation of U.S. State Spending,” used the number of public officials convicted for violations of federal corruption laws in each state, then indexed that measure with population and employment. By those measures, Idaho ranked as the 15th and 13th least corrupt state in the union, respectively.

That rankled Oguzhan Dincer and Michael Johnston, who wrote in a Harvard University Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics blog post that approaching corruption from the standpoint of convictions “suffers from several significant problems,” including incomplete data, failing to incorporate the resources available to prosecute corruption in each state, partisan bias, time lag between crimes and convictions, and the relative seriousness of the crimes.

In their rankings—based on a survey of journalists from each state—illegal corruption like bribes are “not at all common” in any of Idaho’s three branches of government. Bribes were found to be “not at all common” and “moderately common” in so-called “legal corruption,” defined as corruption that is legal but even seemingly unethical. Researchers based their study on the perception of journalists because they have “a better knowledge of state governments and spend a great deal of time observing the government officials and interacting with them.”

"Idaho, North and South Dakota and the majority of the New England states—Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont—are perceived to be the least corrupt states."

"Measuring Illegal and Legal Corruption in American States: Some Results from the Corruption in America Survey," Dec. 1, 2014
While academic studies wrestle with the problem of how to measure and define government corruption, a few experts have noted how the Internet and access to government information is changing public perceptions about it. 

Boise State University Associate Professor of Political Science Jaclyn Kettler said that increased online access to government data has begun to shift the definition of corruption from quid-pro-quo relationships and under-the-table deals, to campaign finance and misuse of taxpayer funds. Searchable databases are allowing the public and the media to piece together trends and patterns of behavior more quickly and efficiently.

Boise State University Political Science Professor Jaclyn Kettler. - BOISE STATE UNIVERSITY
  • Boise State University
  • Boise State University Political Science Professor Jaclyn Kettler.
“I do think we’re seeing some changes, and we’re not just focusing on the big stories, like the Oregon governor [John Kitzhaber] and his partner. I think we’ll start to see more of the identifying of minor violations of the law, these smaller types of things,” she said.

“Smaller” criminal and ethical violations on the part of government officials could include the series of scandals that ousted Illinois Republican Congressman Aaron Schock, who was reimbursed for about 170,000 miles on his personal car, which, when checked, registered about 80,000 miles on its odometer. As political bribery, blackmailing and murder become more rare, fraud and unethical behaviors are replacing them in the media.

That shift is having consequences for public appreciation of lawmakers.

“I think people increasingly are talking about money and politics and how it’s all corrupt. It’s a very negative evaluation. These stories compound that attitude,” Kettler said.

While there may be a correlation between corruption and the public’s ability to access state data online, Baxandall indicated that such a correlation may be more sophisticated than meets the eye.

“What’s the cause [of corruption]? What’s the effect? A place that’s generally considered to be fairly corrupt might have a fairly good ranking [in the U.S. PIRG report]; it could be that the past corruption causes the good transparency—or the new transparency shows the present corruption,” he said.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly described The State Public Integrity Investigation as a report of corruption. It is, in fact, a report on states' risk of corruption.
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Monday, December 29, 2014

Replacement Attorney Appointed in Wake of Suspension of Adams County Prosecutor

Posted By on Mon, Dec 29, 2014 at 10:14 AM

Adams County is beginning 2015 with a new, permanent prosecuting attorney, after spending much of 2014 in legal limbo when its former prosecutor lost his license to practice law.

Michael Robinson was sworn into office as Adams County's new prosecutor in January 2013. But later that same year, he was accused by the Idaho State Bar for what it said were six instances of professional misconduct while working with clients in his private practice.

And following a two-day hearing in March of this year, Robinson admitted guilt on four out of six counts lodged against him and admitted guilt to portions of the remaining counts. The charges, which involved his private law practice in six 2013 court cases in Valley County, included revealing confidential information about clients without their consent, and conducted himself in a manner "prejudicial to the administration of justice." Ultimately, the Idaho Supreme Court suspended Robinson's license.

But it wasn't until earlier this month that Adams County Commissioners formally declared Robinson's post as vacant. The McCall Star-News reports that Matthew Faulks as been appointed permanent Adams County prosecutor. 

Meanwhile, Robison has asked a federal judge to overturn his suspension, according to the Star-News, but no ruling has been made by U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge who has been assigned the case.
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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Video: Eastern Idaho Prosecutor Targeted in Recall Petition

Posted By on Wed, Dec 3, 2014 at 10:57 AM

An eastern Idaho prosecutor is under fire after citizens turned in a recall petition, calling for his ouster, with more than 3,500 signatures.

KIDK-TV is reporting that a Jefferson County group wants longtime prosecuting attorney Robin Dunn out of office. Among other things, the group points to Goody's personal law firm that charged the county $18,000 to represent the county in a federal case.

"Over the last few years, he has misused his authority, power and his budget to the detriment of the country," said Shelly Alldred who worked with Dunn for 15 years but signed the recall petition.

The Jefferson County Clerk's Office is currently verifying the signatures to make certain that there are enough—2,824 were required—to trigger a recall election.

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

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Friday, September 20, 2013

Missoulian: Plagiarism Derails Montana Justice's Hope for Advancement

Posted By on Fri, Sep 20, 2013 at 10:31 AM

A Montana Justice of the Peace, vying to become a District Court Judge in her state, has been bounced from the shortlist of candidates in the wake of a plagiarism charge.

This morning's Missoulian reports that Lake County Justice of the Peace JoAnn "Joey" Jayne had applied to replace an outgoing 20th Judicial District Court Judge, but questions arose whether Jayne's writing samples were original. Jayne said the allegations stemmed from "an inadvertent mistake made in her haste to finish her application packet," according to the Missoulian.

It turns out that Jayne submitted a court filing as part of her application packet, but the court filing was written by someone else. In fact, it was written by a partner of a Montana attorney who is also an applicant for the district judge position.

“Now that I reread the application instructions for a writing sample, I do concede that the writing I submitted is not my original writing,” said Jayne. “It was never my intention, desire, or plan to be fraudulent in my application as I uphold my occupation as an attorney, judge, and my citizenship with great responsibility, respect, diligence, and honesty."

Jayne was elected as Lake County Justice of the Peace in 2011.

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Idaho Treasurer Exonerated of State Gas Card Misuse

Posted By on Thu, Jan 26, 2012 at 3:33 PM

Canyon County's prosecutor said today that no charges will be filed against Idaho Treasurer Ron Crane for using a state credit card to fill up his private vehicle, although Prosecutor Bryan Taylor did recommend that Crane keep better records when using state money for personal trips.

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that Crane had charged his state gas card for nearly $7,000 of fuel for his personal car over the past three years, some for state business and some for his personal use. Legislative auditors asked the Canyon County Prosecutor's Office to look into the matter (given that Crane lives in Nampa).

Responding to today's announcement, Crane said Taylor had "validated" the usage of his private vehicle for travel to and from work.

"This practice has saved the Idaho taxpayers close to $35,000 since I turned in the state car in 2005," said Crane. "I do not need a state vehicle and I honestly question whether any state official does, especially during these tough economic times."

Crane said he had adopted Taylor's recommendations to keep a comprehensive record of state-driven miles in his personal vehicle.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Allred responds to Interior ethics scandal

Posted By on Wed, Sep 10, 2008 at 4:02 PM

While addressing a crowd of Idaho politicians, officials and business and environmental leaders at the Idaho Environmental Forum this afternoon, Stephen Allred, the former Idaho Department of Environmental Quality director tapped by Department of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to head up the Land, Minerals and Management Bureau said that decisions in Washington are not subject to political pressures.

"I've been totally surprised by the lack of political impacts that people have on department operations," Allred said during the forum. "Now that doesn't mean they don't try, let me tell you."

But earlier Wednesday, a New York Times story described a wide-ranging ethics scandal within the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, now under Allred's direct supervision, that includes blatant political favors, self-enrichment, drug use and sexual misconduct. The story, which details a series of three Office of Inspector General reports (here, here and here) suggests a "culture of ethical failure" within the agency.

The Minerals Management Service is the agency tasked with collecting $10 billion in royalties, mostly for oil and gas extraction. According to the Times, it's one of the federal government's largest sources of revenue.

The allegations predate Allred's tenure at the agency, and he said that the agency itself initiated the investigations.

"Mineral Management Services found or suspected it, asked them to investigate and now the reports are coming out," Allred told citydesk. "What frustrates me is that it took almost two years to get this out."

Allred said that the people implicated in the scandal were isolated as soon as allegations were made and that he leaned on the Inspector General for the past six to eight months to release the report so that the Mineral Service could address the allegations.

The Inspector General spent two years and $5.3 million on the investigation and interviewed  233 witnesses. Chevron refused to cooperate with the investigation, further delaying the final report.

The IEF forum Wednesday featured Allred, Michael Bogert, Kempthorne's longtime attorney who is a key player in a major rewrite of Endangered Species Act regulations now underway, and Jim Caswell, director of the Bureau of Land Management and former head of Idaho's Office of Species Conservation. All three indicated that their jobs are very difficult and will be over come January and a new administration in Washington.

Allred, who met with President George Bush on Tuesday, praised Bush for often being better briefed than his briefers and very interested in energy development, administration of public lands and the fish and wildlife issues at the nexus of the two.

Allred said Bush asked: "What are we doing to make sure we're not impacting wildlife?"

Bogert said Bush has not gotten enough credit for expanding wetlands, boosting National Parks and a bird initiative.

UPDATE Secretary Dirk Kempthorne responded Thursday to the reports:
"I am outraged by the immoral behavior, illegal activities, and appalling misconduct of several former and current long-serving career employees in the Minerals Management Service's Royalty in Kind program ... These individuals have eroded the trust the American citizens deserve to have in their public servants."

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