By Dave Graham
BERLIN (Reuters) - The United States has dropped out of the "top 20" in a global league table of least corrupt nations, tarnished by financial scandals and the influence of money in politics, Transparency International said on Tuesday.
Somalia was judged the most corrupt country, followed by Myanmar and Afghanistan at joint second-worst and then by Iraq, in the Berlin-based watchdog TI's annual corruption perceptions index (CPI).
The United States fell to 22nd from 19th last year, with its CPI score dropping to 7.1 from 7.5 in the 178-nation index, which is based on independent surveys on corruption.
This was the lowest score awarded to the United States in the index's 15-year history and also the first time it had fallen out of the top 20.
In the Americas, this put the United States behind Canada in sixth place, Barbados at 17th and Chile in 21st place.
Jointly heading the index -- in which a score of 10 indicates a country with the highest standards, and 0 as highly corrupt -- were Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore with 9.3. They were also at the top of the table last year.
Somalia scored 1.1. The watchdog group said its table was based on "different assessments and business opinion surveys carried out by independent and reputable institutions."
U.S. "INTEGRITY DEFICIT"
Nancy Boswell, president of TI in the United States, said lending practices in the subprime crisis, the disclosure of Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme and rows over political funding had all rattled public faith about prevailing ethics in America.
"We're not talking about corruption in the sense of breaking the law," she said. "We're talking about a sense that the system is corrupted by these practices. There's an integrity deficit."
Various financial scandals at state and city level had encouraged the impression that the regulatory oversight was weak and that influence could be bought, she added.
The index showed a number of countries -- including Iran -- climbing up the chart significantly from 2009, though TI said this could often be ascribed to the fact that different surveys were being used that offered no direct comparison to last year.
The fact that nearly three quarters of the countries scored 5.0 or less showed corruption was still a major global problem, said Robin Hodess, director of policy and research at TI.
However, the watchdog identified Bhutan, Chile, Ecuador, Macedonia, Gambia, Haiti, Jamaica, Kuwait, and Qatar as states where improvement had been made over the past year.
By contrast, it highlighted the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Madagascar, Niger and the United States as nations where perceptions had deteriorated.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)