By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog
NASHVILLE — The new year is here and, thus far, of all the priorities Tennessee legislators have laid out for the 2015 General Assembly, none involve clamping down on government employees who steal from taxpayers.
Perhaps it’s time lawmakers got serious about addressing government theft.
Auditors with the state Comptrollers Office were no less busy in 2014 churning out audits showing that government employees who have sole access to taxpayer money are tempted to steal it.
In one notable instance, a former Alcoa City School District employee who oversaw federal funds took nearly $500,000 in taxpayer money and used some of it on her iTunes account.
Auditors are often the first to discover the thefts, but it’s the job of managers at the local level to detect these thefts in the first place, Auditor Ben Vance told Tennessee Watchdog.
“It’s the management’s responsibility. He or she is responsible for internal control. We don’t go in there to look for fraud,” Vance said.
“We certainly assess the risk and let that bear into what we’re looking at, but the management is responsible for that.”
Thieves who work for government entities, Vance said, catch on to the fact that taxpayer money is for the taking. Elected officials and other government employees often aren’t monitoring government spending carefully enough, he said.
“They’re ignorant to it and then they find out someone has been stealing from them for years and they’re just shocked because they haven’t been doing their own jobs,” Vance said.
So what can state legislators do?
Very little, it seems.
“The only thing we can do at the state level is increase the penalties for theft,”said former State Rep. Kent Williams, I-Elizabethton, in 2013.
State Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, meanwhile, said government can only do so much.
“Oftentimes this boils down to a person’s individual, moral decisions. If there are no adequate measures to catch them timely, then it usually comes from the bottom up on the local level,” Norris said.
“The human condition causes this to happen evenly, the same amount in the private sector as in the public sector, but perhaps in the public sector there are more crossing guards to catch it and air it publicly. It’s hard to say what happens in the private sector that you never hear about.”
Some jurisdictions, it must be said, lack the financial resources to put stronger checks and balances in place to prevent theft?
So what’s the solution?
Could legislators also implement laws requiring ethics training for these employees?
Well, it’s an idea, at least.
Clearly, as the events of 2014 demonstrated, the problem of theft among government employees isn’t getting any better.
Perhaps it’s time for more legislators to start brainstorming and add their two cents to this discussion.
Contact Christopher Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org