Sunshine as Disinfectant: The Effect of State Freedom of Information Act Laws on Public Corruption
46 Pages Posted: 6 Sep 2011 Last revised: 28 Mar 2014
Date Written: March 2014
We assess the effect of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws on public corruption in the United States. Specifically, we investigate the impact of switching from a weak to a strong state-level FOIA law on corruption convictions of state and local government officials. The evidence suggests that strengthening FOIA laws has two offsetting effects: reducing corruption and increasing the probability that corrupt acts are detected. The conflation of these two effects led prior work to find little impact of FOIA on corruption. We find that conviction rates approximately double after the switch, which suggests an increase in detection probabilities. However, conviction rates decline from this new elevated level as the time since the switch from weak to strong FOIA increases. This decline is consistent with officials reducing the rate at which they commit corrupt acts by about twenty percent. These changes are more pronounced in states with more intense media coverage, for those that had more substantial changes in their FOIA laws, for local officials, and for more serious crimes. Conviction rates of federal officials, who are not subject to the policy, show no concomitant change.
Keywords: FOIA, Sunshine, Corruption, Open Government
JEL Classification: D73, D78, H11, K0
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation