Another mess in the nation’s capital

Just in case you are returning from a long Thanksgiving vacation on Mars, let me catch you up on what may be one of the worst municipal corruption scandals in American history, at least in the sheer audacity, duration, and amount of money stolen.

For years, two employees — the boss and a deputy — in the Washington’s property tax office with the aid of several outsiders and under the nose of financial chiefs have stolen several kings’ ransoms and then some. How much? They’re still counting but so far it could be more than $44 million. Originally it was set at half of that, but closer scrutiny indicates the higher figure is probably more like it.

So if you don’t live here, why should you care other than to muse over how such a thing could happen? Well, the answer to that should be easy. This is still a federal enclave, a city actually owned by the rest of country and, until Lyndon Johnson came up with a concept of home rule, managed by your elected representatives in Congress. Four decades after a city council and mayor were substituted as primary administrators, it remains a place of physical beauty that masks one of the worst run municipalities in the nation.

The public schools are an utter failure despite financial support that on a per capita student basis is among the highest in the nation. Murder rates in all but one quadrant of the city remain devastatingly high. The bureaucracy is a nightmare and the streets often a mess with little or no traffic control by a police force that is kept busy responding to gunfire and picking up bodies in the drug infested neighborhoods. Exaggeration?

It may seem that way if one is a tourist whose movements are pretty much confined to the core city of excellent museums and monuments and government offices and the corridor from Capitol Hill to the White House. But for those who live and pay taxes here, the reality is quite different. In all but the wealthiest neighborhoods where housing costs remains astronomically high, it is an often- sordid story of innocent death and destruction and failed community services.

The city recently elected a bright young mayor, Adrian Fenty, and he is taking major reform steps in education, police protection and a variety of other services. Whether or not he can overcome the years of corruption fostered by a womanizing dope-smoking, ex-convict predecessor, Marion Barry, is problematic. An indication of what Fenty faces is the fact Barry is still serving on the city council. Fenty’s immediate predecessor, Anthony Williams, elected on a promise to clean things up, spent most of his time negotiating with sports franchises and returning major league baseball to the city at a horrendous cost to taxpayers.

Now comes this all out thievery in the tax office where the lead culprit apparently ran up bills of more than $1 million at one department store and bought real estate, high end cars, jewelry, watches and enough material goods to last a lifetime without stirring the interest of her superiors. Almost equally as disturbing is the fact that there is debate over whether to dismiss the officials who should have been watching. These master criminals issued checks for property tax rebates in the names of phony companies and only got caught out of stupidity. One of the culprits stimulated the interest of a bank official by trying to move $200,000 into another financial institution.

Notice that in this accounting I have declined to use the word “alleged” under the doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty.” It seems hardly necessary in a case that is about as open and shut as any and probably never will come to trial because of plea-bargaining. It would be easy to discount this as just another scandal in a major city if it weren’t for the size of the theft and the place it occurred. Washington’s citizens long have complained they are being taxed without voting representation in Congress. Bills to provide them with a seat in the U.S. House are currently under consideration as they have been over the years without success. This time they seemed to have a chance.

Why should you be interested if you don’t live here? Once again the answer seems obvious. Everything that takes place here impacts everywhere else in this country — even the image of gross abuse of the public trust in what the founders hoped would be a model town for all Americans.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)

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