Rhode Island One of the Least Corrupt States [Updated]

A couple days ago, Daniel Lawlor pulled out the old saw of Rhode Island’s corrupt politics, telling us “political corruption is nothing new to Rhode Island.” While Mr. Lawlor’s article is nothing more than really a brief political history of the state, hardly more objectionable then telling us that some folks don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom, it ties into a serious misapprehension about the state; namely that Rhode Island is a corrupt one. While I would hate to deprive people something to complain about, the facts don’t align with that particular point of view.

In reality, two different rankings (relying on federal data) have been published in the past year which put corruption nowhere near any sort of objectionable levels. The most recent is a study that showed up just over a week ago. Published by the University of Illinois  at Chicago’s Political Science Department, the report is titled “Chicago and Illinois, Leading the Pack in Corruption” and shows exactly what it says, that Illinois’ has convicted more people on public corruption charges than any other major metropolitan area. Providence and Rhode Island don’t even rank in the top 15.

Going down the list of appendices, we discover that from 2001 to 2010, the United States Attorney’s Office of Rhode Island convicted exactly 23 people of public corruption. States that ranked equal to or lower were Idaho (23), New Hampshire (16), Wyoming (16), and Vermont (15). In just totals, Rhode Island is the fifth least corrupt state in the entire United States. Per capita may change that number, but still not to astronomical levels.*

The Daily Beast released corruption rankings of the states and the District of Columbia nearly two years ago. Using a slightly different period of time (1998-2008), The Beast ranked states according to an aggregate of five categories of convictions; public corruption, racketeering and extortion (organized crime), forgery and counterfeiting, fraud, and embezzlement. Only one of those categories exclusive applies to public officials; the rest can all be committed by private citizens. The Beast ranked their top ten most corrupt states (from greatest to least) as Tennessee, Virginia, Mississippi, Delaware, North Carolina, Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Oklahoma. Where did Rhode Island fall? 11th? 15th? 20th? 25th?

27th. Out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, Rhode Island fell in a respectable slightly below the middle. However, it wasn’t public corruption or organized crime (we ranked 32nd in each). What brought our position up was fraud (14th) and embezzlement (7th), crimes completely capable of being committed by private citizens. Indeed, The Daily Beast singled out Lisa Torres of Johnston as their example. For those keeping track, we ranked 44th in forgery and counterfeiting.

The reality is that a state like Rhode Island is well-suited to battling corruption and keeping it out of the state. A relatively small population lowers the possibilities, while the high density means keeping corruption a secret is next to impossible. The ease of access the Rhode Island press corps has to lawmakers (I mean physically, it’s far easier to reach them then say those in Illinois), combined with our capital’s location in a major metropolitan area and media market increases the incentive to play by the rules. At present, the big news story of possible corruption was Sam Zurier, in a tiff with some constituents over the paltry sum of $100. Considering the circus that went on over that, the reaction if someone was corrupt for a sum of real value would probably overwhelm us for months.

Citizens have every right to complain about government, and I don’t blame them for viewing the state in a negative light, since focusing on the negative is a common experience for people. But to tar our government with the brush of false corruption is a reckless thing. Rhode Island is a relative example of a government that plays by the rules (whether those rules are unfair and whether the winner is who we’d like it to be are other discussions). It’s time we congratulated ourselves for that, instead of insulting our own state. Corruption may not be new to us, but it is growing foreign to us.


According to my math (it may be shaky), Rhode Island ranks about 37th or 38th out of 53 states and territories in per capita public corruption convictions per 10000 residents. D.C.’s numbers may be inflated because it often tries officials from other states. Due to rounding, position numbers are not 100% accurate. Numbers utilize total convictions from 2001-2010 per U.S. Attorney’s Office District (states/territories with multiple offices have had totals combined) and the state’s population in the 2010 census.

  1. DC: 5.6 per 10000
  2. Guam & NMI: 3.56 per 10000
  3. Virgin Islands: 3.38  per 10000
  4. Georgia: 2.29 per 10000
  5. Louisiana: 0.85 per 10000
  6. North Dakota: 0.82 per 10000
  7. Puerto Rico: 0.74 per 10000
  8. South Dakota: 0.73 per 10000
  9. Florida: 0.70 per 10000
  10. Alaska: 0.67 per 10000
  11. Kentucky: 0.65 per 10000
  12. Mississippi: 0.60 per 10000
  13. Montana: 0.60 per 10000
  14. Alabama: 0.57 per 10000
  15. Delaware: 0.51 per 10000
  16. Virginia: 0.52 per 10000
  17. New Jersey: 0.49 per 10000
  18. Illinois: 0.44 per 10000
  19. Ohio: 0.43 per 10000
  20. Pennsylvania: 0.43 per 10000
  21. Tennessee: 0.41 per 10000
  22. West Virginia: 0.39 per 10000
  23. Maryland: 0.38 per 10000
  24. Oklahoma: 0.36 per 10000
  25. Massachusetts: 0.32 per 10000
  26. Hawaii: 0.32 per 10000
  27. Missouri: 0.31 per 10000
  28. Arkansas: 0.30 per 10000
  29. New York: 0.30 per 10000
  30. Connecticut: 0.28 per 10000
  31. Texas: 0.28 per 10000
  32. Wyoming: 0.28 per 10000
  33. Arizona: 0.27 per 10000
  34. Maine: 0.26 per 10000
  35. Michigan: 0.25 per 10000
  36. Vermont: 0.24 per 10000
  37. New Mexico: 0.22 per 10000
  38. Rhode Island: 0.22 per 10000
  39. Wisconsin: 0.21 per 10000
  40. Colorado: 0.19 per 10000
  41. North Carolina: 0.19 per 10000
  42. California: 0.18 per 10000
  43. Iowa: 0.17 per 10000
  44. Idaho 0.15 per 10000
  45. Nebraska: 0.14 per 10000
  46. Utah: 0.14 per 10000
  47. Nevada: 0.13 per 10000
  48. Washington: 0.13 per 10000
  49. Kansas: 0.12 per 10000
  50. Minnesota: 0.12 per 10000
  51. New Hampshire: 0.12 per 10000
  52. South Carolina: 0.12 per 10000
  53. Oregon: 0.10 per 10000
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A native-born Rhode Islander, educated in Providence Public Schools, went to college in North Carolina and a political junkie and pessimistic optimist.

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