Why petty corruption matters
Two recent scandals involving county commissioners show that while Colorado has a reputation for clean government, we’re not immune from public corruption.
A Grand County Commissioner recently pleaded guilty to embezzling public property valued at “a few thousand dollars” and resigned. Former Commissioner James Newberry was caught filing phony reimbursement requests for meetings he didn’t attend.
Meanwhile, in Elbert County, Commissioner Robert Rowland signed a county check to reimburse himself for a $1,000 fine a judge had ordered him to pay to the county, causing a storm of lawsuits that threatens to cost the county tens of thousands of dollars.
Small potatoes? Sure, if you compare these dollar amounts with public corruption cases in other states. Take, for example, the 2013 conviction of Cook County, Illinois Commissioner William Beavers for embezzling $226,000 of campaign money. Or the 2014 resignation of DeKalb County, Georgia Commissioner Elaine Boyer amidst a federal probe for allegedly embezzling more than $90,000 from the county.
But it’s far better to take small-time corruption seriously than it is to wait until corrupt officials who’ve gotten away with minor transgressions move on to something bigger.
Here in Colorado, a legislative ethics commission let then-Rep. Steve King off with a stern letter after he had been caught submitting reimbursement requests to the state for mileage that he was also reimbursing himself for using campaign funds. A couple of years later, as a state senator, King pleaded guilty to embezzling just under $5,000 by submitting falsified time sheets to the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office and Colorado Mesa University, where he was employed.
Would King have gone on to offend again had the House Ethics Committee given him more than a slap on the wrist for his first known experience submitting bogus reports to obtain government cash? We’ll never know.
But what we do know is that there’s no dollar figure below which misusing campaign or public funds should be considered no big deal. Tolerance of small corruption can only lead to more corruption as public officials test the boundaries of how much graft they can get away with before people start taking it seriously.
Colorado’s reputation as a clean-government state stems from our insistence that public officials adhere to the highest standards of conduct. That means any public corruption, even those involving small dollar figures, must be taken seriously. As special prosecutor Bruce Brown said about the James Newberry case, “The integrity of our government rests on the ethics of individuals elected to be stewards of the public’s trust.”
Colorado will keep its clean-government reputation so long as the public continues to demand accountability in even the smallest cases of public corruption.
Photo credit: Boston Public Library, Creative Commons, Flickr.