State leads nation in public corruption rates

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, July 20, 2013

A recent study by two economists reported that Mississippi led the nation in public official corruption rates between 1985 and 2000 — and speculated that the arrival of casino gambling in the state may have made an existing problem worse.

The Pew Research Center cited a study that appeared in the journal Applied Economics. According to the economists, federal corruption convictions increased in states such as Mississippi, which legalized casino gambling in the early 1990s. It noted that the trend began after states approved gambling but before the casinos opened.

In that 15-year period, Mississippi had almost four federal corruption convictions per 10,000 state employees. Louisiana was second, followed by Illinois and South Dakota — all states with casinos.

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The economists suggested that casino companies eager to expand from Las Vegas and Atlantic City may have sought out states that already had a problem with corruption. Mississippi, Louisiana and the Chicago area fit that description quite nicely.

Still, this question must be asked: Since gambling operations were so much bigger in Las Vegas and Atlantic City before 2000, why didn’t Nevada and New Jersey, with their more mature industries, rank as highly in corruption cases? After all, stories of organized crime’s influence in both locations is legendary — the stuff of famous movies.

Nevada’s and New Jersey’s absence from the top of the corruption list might imply that the correlation made by the study’s authors is flawed. After all, in Mississippi’s two decades of legalized gaming, there have really been no significant scandals related to the industry.

Mississippi seems to have done a better job than most states of requiring investments from casino companies before they can open a gambling hall. Regulators also have let economics and the free market determine the number of casinos in Mississippi, instead of setting artificial limits the way

Louisiana did. Our neighboring state has had problems with corruption as a result, including the conviction during the 1990s of former Gov. Edwin Edwards for his role in a bribery and extortion scheme to rig casino licenses.

The top ranking in this report, whatever the cause, is disappointing for Mississippi. The economists’ study period ended 13 years ago. It makes you wonder how Mississippi has fared in public corruption cases since the turn of the century.