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Politics & Government

Delaware among least transparent states in America, survey finds

Delaware Public Media

A new survey of transparency and ethics policies found glaring gaps in Delaware’s governmental accountability system, earning it a failing grade and near to the bottom of all 50 states.

The 2015 State Integrity Investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity ranked Delaware 48th, one of 11 states with an F grade.  No state earned above a C grade.

Much of that stems from state lawmakers carving out disclosure exemptions for themselves, a lack of digital access to public documents and an anemic oversight agency.

The Public Integrity Commission charged with collecting state lawmaker, judicial and governmental official disclosure forms is run by two people.

Legislators cut their budget 2.6 percent in July amid a stagnant revenue climate and extended negotiations among legislators.

“The enforcement and investigative powers of PIC Counsel are severely hamstrung by inadequate resources,” wrote former Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey in a 2013 report uncovering several campaign finance violations by sitting politicians who didn’t reveal expensive gifts in their annual disclosure forms.

That cut is even starker considering salaries for those two full-time employees make up about 58 percent of the department’s expenses.

Deborah Moreau heads the office and says she, along with other department heads, were asked to cut back on costs to make it through the most recent fiscal year. But Moreau said she didn’t anticipate that becoming permanent.

“It almost seems like the reward for financial responsibility is to have your budget cut and I don’t think that’s the message they want to send,” she said.

This is the second such survey by the Center for Public Integrity. Delaware earned a C- in the first report released in 2012.

The latest investigation uses a new methodology, placing more of an emphasis on digital records access, for instance, and can’t be directly compared to prior work.

One attempt to afford greater access to Delaware’s inner legislative workings did boost its score over the first edition.

Lobbyists must now report which bills they’re attempting to influence and are available to the public.

One of the biggest dark spots in Delaware’s sunshine law envelopes all of Legislative Hall.

When the General Assembly pried open the doors to conduct public budget hearings and broaden the Freedom of Information Act, they excluded the release of their own emails and that of their staff.

“What we’re doing is depriving people, the public, of the opportunity to look over our shoulders and they pay the price of admission to look over our shoulders to see what we’re doing,” said Rep. John Kowalko (D-Newark South), a staunch open government advocate.

Those exemptions also apply to the state’s largest and partially-publicly funded universities when requests don’t involve taxpayer money.

Efforts by Kowalko and others to fold University of Delaware and Delaware State University into the FOIA law have stalled over the past two years.

“If we can’t even establish a certainty of transparency amongst institutions that we fund to the tune of $130 million a year, how the hell can we expect that we’re going to reveal our own secrets?”

The Attorney General’s office has also forced certain state agencies to release documents and records after public officials had denied FOIA requests.

That includes a 2013 request for how much AT&T Communications of Delaware and Sprint contributed to the state’s Broadband Fund.

Another from the Associated Press that year regarding how and where the state buys, stores and disposes of lethal injection execution drugs was also upheld on appeal.

Despite that, those in power say progress is being made.

Jonathan Dworkin, a spokesman for Gov. Jack Markell (D), issued a statement touting improvements made during his two-term tenure.

“We have a never-ending responsibility to look for ways to increase government transparency and strengthen the public’s confidence in our political process. While we have more work to do, Delaware government and the people involved in politics are more accountable to the public than ever before,” Dworkin wrote.

John Flaherty, head of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, agrees with Markell in most respects.

He cites a number of improvements made over the past several years.  For instance, preparing public records requests is now required to cost less.  Also, each agency must employ a FOIA coordinator and they can’t reject a request sent to the wrong department.

But Flaherty says the poor funding of the Public Integrity Commission leaves the state without an ethical overseer – especially because state lawmakers police themselves with internal ethics commissions handling violations.

“Right now, we really have no watchdog of the Delaware General Assembly,” Flaherty said.

Another glaring oversight involves the judiciary, who aren’t subject to FOIA and who punish their own behind closed doors, which Flaherty says is a priority for him to address this next year.

Only Wyoming and Michigan scored lower on the survey than Delaware, while Alaska, California and Connecticut took the top three spots respectively.

Note: Delaware Public Media's James Dawson collaborated on the project with Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity