I knew it.
I just knew there was something about Jefferson City that made it prone to ethical challenges and blatant lawbreaking.
For years, I’ve wondered why Missouri’s capital city deals with corruption as often as it does while Topeka chugs along blissfully free of such problems.
And now we’ve got scientific evidence — proof that there’s something about Jeff City, population 43,000, that makes it different than a Topeka or a St. Paul or a Des Moines.
It’s called geography.
“Isolated state capital cities are robustly associated with greater levels of corruption,” conclude Harvard Kennedy School scholar Filipe Campante and Singapore Management University’s Quoc-Anh Do in a new study, “Isolated Capital Cities, Accountability and Corruption: Evidence from U.S. States.”
With an out-of-the-way capital like Jeff City, fewer reporters cover the proceedings. Life in the Capitol is too far removed from the daily goings-on in Kansas City to demand gavel-to-gavel. Voters here don’t follow state government closely. They don’t vote as often in state elections.
“‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is one of the catchphrases that seems to be going on,” Campante told me.
The study documents all this and apparently is the first quantitative analysis of the issue.
“It seems to me that politicians understand the degree of scrutiny they are facing,” Campante said. “They know there are certain things they can’t get away with. And there are certain things they can.”
The study’s release comes as Jeff City is facing yet another round of ethical bumbling impropriety. John Diehl just resigned as House speaker in the wake of a sexting scandal with an intern. Now a second lawmaker, Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat, is at the center of questions about his office’s work with interns.
Former state lawmaker Chris Mollendorp, a Belton Republican who now lobbies, said Jeff City’s sleepy nature “is just icing on what’s already a rancid cake.” The capital, he said, has been corrupted by loose campaign rules and looser standards for lobbyists. The result? Let’s see what we can get away with.
Here’s an idea: Maybe it’s time to move the statehouse to, say, the Crossroads.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Campante said. “But you should be more watchful of what the politicians are doing because you have these structural factors pulling in another direction.”
We now have the science to prove it.