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PUBLIC EMPLOYEE THIEVERY

 

 


By Bill Sizemore

March 8, 2006

NewsWithViews.com

The first time I heard this story, I assumed it was a rare, isolated event. After all, there are good people and bad people in pretty much every walk of life from secretaries to carpenters; from politicians to preachers. If a person is dishonest, that lack of integrity will be exhibited, whether it’s at work or at the friendly Wednesday night poker game.

Over time, however, I have come to believe that due to the nature of public sector work there may be a lot more stealing going on there than one might think.

I want to begin by telling you about a lady who used to work as a carpenter in the maintenance department of the Portland Public School District. I will call her Terri.

Terri was a single mom, and struck me as an honest, hardworking woman, just trying to make a living and take care of her young son. As it turned out, however, it was impossible at the time for an honest person to work at the maintenance department of the Portland School District and maintain her integrity.

When Terri came to talk to me, she had just moved back to Portland after hiding for more than a year somewhere out of state, where she had gone to escape the threats that had been brought against her and her child, due to the fact that she had spoken out against the rampant theft she had observed at the district’s maintenance shop.

Terri was not a whiner. And even though she came across as anything but a wimp, tears filled her eyes as she relayed her story to me.

She told me she had been working at the district maintenance shop only a short time when she began to notice some rather odd things occurring. Delivery trucks would roll up to the shop, loaded with thousands of dollars worth of new equipment, tools and building materials. However, rather than bringing the items into the shop, however, district employees would take the tools and supplies from the trucks and load them into their personal vehicles.

Expensive new tools, still in their boxes, would come off the truck and be loaded directly into employees’ trucks and vans. No one seemed to pay any attention.

Terri said she couldn’t believe her eyes. It was all so blatant. Employees behaved as if there was nothing wrong with what they were doing. She finally could stand no more. She told another employee what she had seen. The coworker’s response went something like this: If you know what’s good for you, Terri, you’ll just ignore what you’ve seen and say nothing more about it. This happens all the time. It goes all the way up the ladder. Guys here even use district building materials to do remodeling jobs at the personal residences of the “higher ups.”

Terri ignored the advice of her co-worker and went to her supervisor. “No one wanted to talk about it,” she said. In fact, no one would do anything. But that was not the end of the story. Terri had broken the rules. She had talked about it.

Suddenly she started receiving phone calls at home in the middle of the night, telling her to back off. When the threats intensified, she went to the public employees union for help, but none was forthcoming. She went to the police, but they too did nothing.

Finally, when the threats began to involve the use of a chainsaw and the sexual abuse of her young son, she packed her belongings and left the state, having learned the hard way what happens to someone who speaks out against the blatant theft of taxpayer resources.

Terri even knew the identities of the ones threatening her. That made no difference. After talking to her supervisors, her union, and even the police, it was Terri, not the thieves, who left town fearing for her life and that of her young son. Terri’s story reminded me of a visit I had a year or so earlier with another public employee. This person worked for the City of Portland Parks Bureau. The details in this case were almost identical, involving a co-worker who was running a business selling second hand tools and building supplies out of a large shop at his rural home. The problem was, the tools and equipment he was selling were not purchased, but stolen from the Parks Bureau. Again the theft was blatant, but every one looked the other way.

At the time I spoke to her, the employee who had reported this man to her supervisors was on stress disability, stemming from all the threats she had experienced as a result of speaking out about the blatant theft she had observed. She told me that she gave her supervisor the name of the employee, a description of the things he was stealing, and the address where the goods were taken, but the supervisor would not even look into the matter. The honest employee left the job a nervous wreck

Let’s look at one more example. This story involves an appraiser for the Multnomah County Tax Assessor. (For those not familiar with Oregon, Multnomah County is the county where the City of Portland is located.) In this case, at least one county appraiser was running a private appraisal business out of the County Assessors Office, while drawing a full time, taxpayer funded salary.

The appraiser with whom I spoke named the employee, who would show up at work at eight every morning, clock in, and then leave ostensibly to do whatever it is government appraisers do all day. However, instead of going out and appraising homes in Multnomah County, as he was being paid to do, this appraiser would cross the Columbia River to Vancouver, Washington and appraise houses for a fee of $300 per appraisal.

The employee was being paid by the taxpayers in Multnomah County to appraise houses full time for the county assessor, even drawing mileage for his vehicle use, but instead was operating a private business during those same hours. He was drawing a government salary and building a fat pension, while working full time for himself, doing private sector appraisals all day. Talk about double dipping. This fellow didn’t even wait until he retired to double dip.

The employee, who told me about this case, was on stress disability stemming from all the harassment she had undergone as a result of speaking out about the blatant theft of taxpayer money. I began to see the pattern. I also began to wonder why their managers protected the stealing employees, instead of firing them. Were they afraid of the employees? Were they unwilling to take on the public employee unions, who often vigorously defend offending employees? Were the managers getting a share of the loot? Did they simply not care? I wish I knew.

I know of several other stories similar to these, but I think you get the point. There’s something very rotten in Denmark. In each of these cases the theft was perpetrated openly. In each of the cases, the thieves stayed and the whistleblowers were forced out. That tells me the problem is pervasive.

I am not talking here about public employees who go to work every day and do nothing. That’s not so much theft as a reflection of the government culture, where waste is a way of life. After all, there isn’t anything for many public employees to do anyway. Their job is simply to show up for work, try to look busy for eight hours, draw a paycheck, and then retire. Their position is in the budget, so they have to be there, even if all they do is spend the day telling jokes around the water cooler.

While I am on this subject, I remember one fellow, who called me to complain about a measure I had placed on the ballot to curb the exorbitant cost of public employee pensions. After offering his objections to my pension reform measure, this thirty-year ODOT employee (ODOT is the Oregon Department of Transportation) ended his remarks with this: If you really want to save the taxpayers some money, young man, I suggest you walk through ODOT with a clipboard some time and ask everybody you meet, “Did you do anything yesterday? Did you do anything today?” You would pretty much clear this place out, if you did that, he said.

I remember another fellow with whom I used to play racquetball. His girlfriend worked for a local government here in the Portland area. I asked him one day what she did there. He smiled sheepishly and answered, “Nothing.” He went on to tell me that even though she was drawing a full time salary at the time of about $35,000, her job took her only about twenty minutes to perform.

“Twenty minutes a day?” I asked, prepared to hear another “do little” public employee story.

“No,” he replied. “Twenty minutes a year.” He went on to explain how her job description required only that she complete one task, which was the preparation and delivery of a single report. The report, it turns out, was actually prepared by one of the agency’s vendors and delivered to her at the end of the year. All she had to do was accept the report and then hand it to her boss. That took all of about 20 minutes every year. The rest of the year, except for vacation days and sick leave time, she sat in her office and read or surfed the internet. Being an honest employee, she showed up faithfully for work every day and put in her time, but she honestly had nothing to do.

This is all inexcusable government waste, of course, but it does not rise to the same level as the outright theft I described earlier, where employees were openly loading government property on their trucks and taking it home. I have heard so many of these stories over the years, stories told to me firsthand by those who saw the theft with their own eyes, that I am beginning to wonder just how pervasive the criminal theft of government assets really is.

The fact that the whistleblowers in all three cases were removed from their jobs for speaking out, or fled the state in fear, makes me think I have seen or heard only the tip of the iceberg. The rest goes unreported.

One thing is certain. In the public sector, there is no profit motive, and when there is no profit motive there is little motivation for fighting waste and corruption. Managers often have no real managerial authority to deal with dishonest employees, and are in fact rewarded as managers for spending every dollar in their budget anyway they can.

Maybe looking the other way while employees steal the store is just another way of getting rid of all that money in their coffers, so they can ask for more next budget.

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I must say in closing that my comments here should not be viewed as a condemnation of all public employees. There are plenty of dedicated public employees providing valuable services that benefit us all. And it was after all honest, dedicated public employees who brought the cases highlighted here to light, even though doing so put them and their families at risk.

© 2006 Bill Sizemore - All Rights Reserved

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Bill Sizemore is a registered Independent who works as executive director of the Oregon Taxpayers Union, a statewide taxpayer organization. Bill was the Republican candidate for governor in 1998. He and his wife Cindy have four children, ages eight to thirteen, and live on 36 acres in Beavercreek, just southeast of Oregon City, Oregon.

Bill Sizemore is considered one of the foremost experts on the initiative process in the nation, having placed dozens of measures on the statewide ballot. Bill was raised in the logging communities of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, and moved to Portland in 1972. He is a graduate of Portland Bible College, where he taught for two years. A regular contributing writer to www.NewsWithViews.com

E-Mail: bill@otu.org

Bill's Web site: www.Billsizemore.net


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Maybe looking the other way while employees steal the store is just another way of getting rid of all that money in their coffers, so they can ask for more next budget.