Public corruption in New York and what needs to be done

(This post is my contribution to an Empire Page Rountable discussion on Public Corruption in NYS. Click here to read other contributions and to learn how to submit comments or a longer opinion piece.)

You might have the perception that public corruption is on the rise. (If someone has statistics on this please, let me know.) My guess is that our awareness of public corruption has been heightened in recent years in part by the state’s fiscal crisis. At a time when there’s not enough money to cover basic expenses, to learn about fraud and malfeasance by public officers gets your attention. But there’s another factor at play I believe which explains why public corruption is high and why people who see it taking place don’t report it.

Working for government at one time was considered to be a sacrifice. People who worked for government – teachers, prison guards, motor vehicle clerks, etc – knew their wages were lower than people working in the private sector. That began to change in the 1970s and 1980s as states and municipalities began to increase benefits (in lieu of comparable salaries) followed by repeated increases in public employee salaries in the ensuing decades.

I saw the change first hand twice when secretaries for my company resigned to take state jobs – one for a lower salary than I was paying her. Her husband wanted her to take the state job for the benefits she explained. At the time I paid 100% of my employees’ healthcare and had offered a SEP IRA for retirement.

Despite the increase in pay and benefits to the point where people who work in the public sector today often earn more than their private sector counterparts, the attitude that one is sacrificing still persists. To some that attitude justifies practices such as taking home office supplies, padding expense reports by staying at the most expensive hotels possible and buying the most expensive meal on the menu, taking sick days just because you have them, and engaging in personal activities while at work.

I believe there is a scale of this kind of behavior in the public sector ranging from those who are scrupulously honest to those like the Corrections Department food director and the State Fair director who openly defrauded the public to the tune on hundreds of thousands of dollars. I don’t know whether the state’s whistle-blower law ought to be amended, but if those who see another person doing something that’s clearly illegal or unethical are also engaging in questionable behavior or believe the person is entitled to extra benefits because they work for the state, then they are much less likely to turn that person in.

Then there’s the question of why the Comptroller and Inspector General’s offices are not able to catch the wrong-doers sooner? Rather than too few people doing the policing, the problem is that there are too many agencies to be policed.

Corruption is another cost of living under a governmental structure built in and for the 19th century. If you read the reports issued by the Comptroller and IG carefully you will see that for every case of outright fraud, there are a dozen of cases of poor management practices and poor judgment. Too many people who are responsible for putting the tax-payers’ dollars to use are poorly trained and poorly supervised, resulting in frequent mistakes and missed opportunities achieving for better results for less.

That’s why government consolidation in New York is not something that maybe should be, could be considered if we get around to doing it, some year. It’s a must do now imperative if New York State is to avoid sinking into third-world conditions by mid-century or sooner.

If I was one of those public employees who are scrupulously honest – and I believe that covers most public employees, I’d be crying out for government consolidation. Get rid of the bad apples or watch the whole barrel turn rotten.

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