How corrupt is Utah?

On the whole, Utah has lower-than-average levels of political corruption.

At length, former Utah Attorney General John Swallow is finally scheduled to face a jury this week. No matter how Swallow’s story ends, however, it marks an aberration. Federal statistics show that Utah has had very low levels of corruption and political malfeasance over the past several years.

I’m leaning on annual reports from the Public Integrity Section at the Department of Justice, which tabulate the number of federal, state, or local officials (whether elected or appointed) convicted of malfeasance in office each year. Recognizing that more populous states tend to have more elected officials, I use convictions per capita rather than total convictions. Well, actually I’m using convictions per 1,000,000 residents, which makes for more workable numbers.

The result? From 2002 through 2015, Utah averaged 1.4 convictions each year per million residents. Only 5 states did better: Oregon (1.0 per year), New Hampshire (1.0), Minnesota (1.2), South Carolina (1.2), and Washington (1.2). Some did far worse: Louisiana (9.3 per year), South Dakota (8.0), North Dakota (7.3), and Kentucky (6.8).

If you’re like me, the chart below will be easier to understand than the preceding paragraph. Click it to make it bigger and easier to read. You’ll find Utah near the top, ranked 6th out of 50 states, only marginally behind the leaders.

Annual corruption cases by state

Here’s another, slightly more complicated way to look at it. The next chart shows the yearly total separately for each state. You’ll see that Utah stays steadily low, while some states have spikes up and down. Again, click the image to enlarge it. States are ordered alphabetically this time, so Utah comes on the last row:

Corruption by state-year

Caveat #1: The Justice Department’s statistics count only convictions won in federal court (whether against federal, state, or local officials from a state). They do not count convictions won in state court. Of note, Swallow is being tried in state court. For that to shuffle these rankings, though, you have to persuade me that the feds are systematically less likely to bring charges in federal court in Utah than elsewhere.

Caveat #2: These statistics count only the number of convictions, with no consideration of the qualitative impact of an official’s malfeasance. This caveat matters a lot more than the preceding one: If Swallow really did what he’s accused of doing, then the scale of his corruption goes far beyond most abuse of office.

In any event, after some turbulent weeks for political news, isn’t it nice to hear something good? On the whole, Utah has lower-than-average levels of political corruption.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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