By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite a well-deserved reputation for scandals, New Jersey is among the state leaders in the fight against official corruption, with most states doing a poor job, according to a wide-ranging study released on Monday.
Five states received a "B" grade for accountability and transparency and eight got an "F" in the investigation by the nonprofit groups Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. No state got an "A."
The 18-month project is the most comprehensive study of state laws and practices that bolster openness and deter corruption, the investigators said.
The five states receiving "B" grades were New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington, California and Nebraska. The eight failing states were North Dakota, Michigan, South Carolina, Maine, Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota and Georgia at the bottom.
Nineteen states got a "C" and 18 received a "D."
For New Jersey, whose popular image is fused with TV's mob drama "The Sopranos," being among the leaders is "counter-intuitive" but a tribute to its corruption-fighting reforms, said Nathaniel Heller, managing director of Global Integrity.
But, he added, "To be at the top of this list is sort of to win a beauty contest where not anybody is particularly pretty to start with."
The study comes as struggling newspapers have slashed statehouse coverage or folded, weakening its traditional watchdog role of government, said Caitlin Ginley of the Center for Public Integrity, the project manager.
Almost every state had large gaps between laws on the books and their enforcement, she said.
The index grade measured the risk of corruption based on 330 indicators across 14 categories of government.
States with well-known scandals paradoxically often have tough laws and enforcement that then bring them to light, a statement accompanying the study said.
"'Quiet' states may be at higher risk, with few means to (bring to the) surface corrupt practices," it said.
NEW JERSEY TOPS LIST
As a prime example of how scandals can lead to reform, New Jersey got a "B+" despite a reputation for corruption that saw Governor Chris Christie bust more than 100 public officials while a U.S. attorney, earning him a reputation as a tough-talking conservative.
Reforms by lawmakers and good-government groups mean "New Jersey now has some of the toughest ethics and anti-corruption laws in the nation," investigators said.
New Jersey ranks first in the integrity investigation for ethics enforcement, first for executive branch accountability and fourth for procurement practices.
New York finished 36th with a "D" grade despite Governor Andrew Cuomo's steering ethics reform through the legislature.
"When the capital (Albany) is mentioned anywhere in New York state, there's usually a guffawing rejoinder followed by 'rats,' 'bums' or 'thieves,'" the report said.
Illinois, where former Governor Rod Blagojevich started a 14-year prison term for corruption on Thursday, got a "C" in a four-way tie for 10th with Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Hawaii.
GEORGIA: SPORTS TICKETS, NO FINES
In Georgia, at the bottom of the list, there is a "gaping divide" between legal standards for accountability and normal practice, the report said.
Some 658 state workers accepted sports tickets, expensive meals and other gifts over a two-year period. It has been 12 years since the state last fined a vendor for failing to disclose such gifts, it said.
As a group, executives of Georgia insurance companies, public utilities and other regulated sectors have become the biggest single source of campaign money for regulators.
Methodology for the study was designed by Global Integrity, a Washington group that examines corruption worldwide.
The Center for Public Integrity oversaw the reporting and editing. Minneapolis-based Public Radio International, a transparency campaigner, handled dissemination by social media.
The study was largely funded by the Omidyar Network, an investment group founded by eBay Inc founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, and the Rita Allen Foundation of Princeton, New Jersey.
(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Philip Barbara)