WASHINGTON - On Thursday, it was Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, the commonwealth's top law enforcement official, facing criminal allegations.

Eight days earlier, federal prosecutors hit 11-term Philadelphia Rep. Chaka Fattah with 29 counts of racketeering and other charges.

On May 1, a former aide to Gov. Christie and a close ally were indicted in the "Bridgegate" scandal.

Exactly a month before that, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey was charged criminally with aiding a friend and donor in exchange for lavish gifts.

And in February, Pennsylvania's former state treasurer, Rob McCord, admitted having tried to extort donors during his unsuccessful 2014 run for governor.

The list doesn't even include a raft of other local officials ensnared by prosecutors in the last year or so - from Pennsylvania state representatives caught on tape accepting cash, to a Philadelphia Municipal Court judge who admitted fixing cases for campaign donors, to a Philadelphia-based state senator who admitted to having staff members plan campaign events that doubled as her birthday parties.

Taken together, the cases paint a damning picture of politics in the Philadelphia region, one that has dominated front pages with stories of wealthy mega-donors, officials using their posts for their own ends, and the alleged abuse of taxpayer dollars.

Kane, Fattah, and Menendez (all Democrats, along with McCord) and the two New Jersey Republicans charged in the George Washington Bridge scandal - Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni - have all insisted they have done nothing wrong and will be proven innocent. Fattah and Menendez have blamed their cases on overly aggressive prosecutors.

Still, the stream of charges adds a dark chapter to two states already widely regarded as among the country's most corrupt.

"The Department of Justice doesn't pick on any particular states," said Craig Holman, the top lobbyist for Public Citizen, a Washington-based watchdog group. "They go to wherever the problem is, and there appears to be a serious problem of lax ethics among many public officials in Pennsylvania. The number of indictments and convictions coming out of Pennsylvania really exceeds what I've seen in most other states."

What state ethics laws are on the books, he said, are rarely enforced. "That just gives the green light for loose behavior."

After the charges against Kane were announced Thursday, Pennsylvania Republicans chided Democrats, pointing to her, McCord, and Fattah.

"How are Pennsylvanians supposed to have confidence in our government when our own attorney general is under indictment?" said a news release from GOP state chairman Rob Gleason.

Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democrat and former state legislator now in his first term in Congress, worried about the impact on voters.

"I know this isn't popular, but the vast majority of people in this business are in it for the right reasons, [and they] are hardworking," Boyle said after the Fattah indictment. "It's a shame because it can have the effect of furthering people's cynicism about public policy and public service."

Hard to compare

While the anecdotes pile up, it's difficult to quantify just how Pennsylvania and New Jersey compare with other states.

"The question is: Is this always there, and we're better at ferreting it out?" said David Thornburgh, executive director of the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based watchdog group. "Or is there just plain more of it?"

The committee has long sought comprehensive data about public corruption, but reliable information is hard to find, he said.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, for example, tallied federal corruption convictions between 1976 and 2010 in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Pennsylvania had the fifth-most convictions. New Jersey was ninth.

But the raw numbers in that 2012 report don't account for charges brought by state or county prosecutors (as is the case with Kane) and don't take into account the size of each state or the severity of the crimes.

When it comes to federal convictions per capita, the Illinois study placed Pennsylvania at 14th and New Jersey 18th.

A 2014 study from professors at Illinois State University and Colgate University rated Pennsylvania the eighth-most corrupt state and New Jersey the fifth in terms of lawmakers receiving political benefits from supporters - such as campaign contributions - in return for favors. But that conclusion was based on a survey of reporters.

"Nobody has come up with a consistent index," Thornburgh said. "It's really difficult to do."

Zero tolerance

The measures vary, but neutral analyses generally place Pennsylvania and New Jersey among the 10 worst states for corruption.

New York, California, Illinois, Florida, Texas, and Louisiana often rate badly, too. Each has a grand tradition of malfeasance.

"I don't know that Pennsylvania has any more or less of a problem than any other state," said Jim Burn, chairman of the state's Democratic Party, who has been critical of Kane. "If we have learned one thing over the decades, it is that the prosecutors in this commonwealth at the federal level and the state level and the county level pull no punches."

Thornburgh, though, said voters "should expect zero tolerance, even if we're never going to get it."

In New Jersey, concentrated political power facilitates abuses, said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. She pointed to the state's one-sided legislative districts and powerful county governments, often dominated by a single party (Democrats in Camden and Republicans in Ocean, for example).

"When you have really, really strong, kind of omnipotent political parties, there ceases to be that oversight function that opposition parties play," Harrison said.

Independently drawn legislative and congressional districts could foster competition and help keep politicians honest, she said.

Holman, of Public Citizen, said he has encouraged Pennsylvania lawmakers to pass tougher ethics laws, including limits on "pay-to-play," the practice of rewarding political donors with government contracts, but the idea has gained little traction.

New Jersey has some of the toughest ethics laws in the country, according to a 2012 study by the Center for Public Integrity. The nonpartisan center gave Pennsylvania a C-minus for ethics laws, though that was still good enough to place in the middle of the pack compared with the lax rules in other states.

At the city level, at least, Philadelphia has won some praise from critics in recent years for its tough caps on campaign giving and its feisty Board of Ethics. An alleged $1 million scheme to sidestep those caps is at the center of the Fattah indictment.

A state law banning "pay-to-play" would not have affected many of the cases that have arisen in recent months, but Holman argued it would send a message.

"It would also put all public officials on alert that the Department of Justice and state law enforcement officers are going to be watching," he said.

@JonathanTamari

www.philly.com/capitolinq