The State Department recently devoted an issue of “The Foreign Service Journal” to the topic of corruption and how the U.S. diplomatic corps can combat it by training civic leaders around the world.
The main point was that “poorly governed areas” provide a safe haven and a justification for terrorists, traffickers and criminals to “step in and fill the void.”
Also highlighted: corruption as a drag on the economy. Secretary of State John Kerry was quoted as saying, “Corruption is an opportunity destroyer because it discourages honest and accountable investment; it makes businesses more expensive to operate; it drives up the cost of public services for local taxpayers; and it turns a nation’s entire budget into a feeding trough for the privileged few.”
The same can be said of too many Kentucky counties, as we are reminded by recent vote-buying convictions in Magoffin County.
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Eastern Kentucky’s image as infected by public corruption is based on numbers not just anecdotes.
Of 93 U.S. attorney’s offices nationwide, the Eastern District of Kentucky ranked 17th in convictions for public corruption over a recent decade, outpacing places that have larger populations, according to Justice Department data cited by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
From 2005 through 2014, the Eastern District, which includes Lexington-Fayette and 66 other counties, produced 201 public corruption convictions, triple the 74 in the Western District of Kentucky, which includes 53 counties including Louisville. Kentucky’s Eastern District had more public corruption convictions than all of Indiana.
We don’t accept for a moment that residents of Eastern Kentucky are less honest or moral than those in the rest of the country. Or that all or even most politicians are dishonest. Still, too many Kentuckians have learned through long experience that they can accommodate the “old ways,” albeit with some grumbling and occasional glimmers of reform, or leave as hundreds of thousands have done.
Economic development will be hard, if not impossible, in places governed by small-time political machines that maintain power in ways that can’t bear scrutiny.
Ethical government is more than just the absence of wrongdoing. Ethical leaders put the greater good first, make decisions in an open, accountable way, and invite everyone to the table.
How to cultivate enough reformers to foster a new civic and political culture is one of the most critical challenges facing the mountains.
Who will step up to this challenge and how are not clear, but that does not make it less urgent.