|Parson Danny Ray Wooten's Halo of Holy|
What should have been an obvious fact somehow never quite came to light that evening. Was it the fault of the City Manager and those in his charge? A City Council that somehow failed to detect any of this for more than a decade? The three elected members of the Municipal Services Committee, which is tasked with overseeing Public Works and other related City Hall bailiwicks? A trio of not quite seeing eye watchdogs that included the Mayor and his until now presumed heir?
Columnist Steven Greenhut (see below) tells us that government in California is generally run on a no consequences basis, and employees who do bad things are often let off the hook and allowed to continue on with their lives as if nothing had ever happened. So when something as immense as the embezzlement of $6.4 million dollars occurs, the elected officials in charge often don't quite know how to deal with it. The act of judging those who work for City Hall is apparently not a comfortable situation for them, and when the crime is so undeniable and obviously immense they seem a little at sea. This is not what they're good at.
Our elected guardians look up from their papers, rub their noses, adjust their seating, then cast worried looks in the direction of the City Attorney and beg for guidance. Who cautiously gives them very little of what they are really asking for.
And while staff instinctively falls back on Process & PowerPoint (which is a bit like a turtle pulling in its head during a time of danger), the question of where exactly the buck actually does stop remains unanswered. Who exactly is at fault? Does anyone in authority have the ability to use it and say something?
We might never really know the answer to any of that. The alleged guilty parties will likely go to jail, which will take some of the pressure off. Many will feel that justice has been served. But who amongst those in charge screwed up? Who missed all of the signs that should have pointed to Parson Danny Ray Wooten's 11 year reign of worry-free theft?
Of course, it doesn't help that there are elections coming up in Pasadena, either. Accountability in the hands of practicing politicians is an Alice in Wonderland experience in the best of times. Bringing into it the strip tease known as running for office only adds to the difficulty level.
Steven Greenhut, writing for San Diego U-T (link), published a prescient column on Dec 31 that helps casts some light on Pasadena's travails. Titled "Report shows state workers acting poorly - Public employees accused of lying and theft face few penalties," it exposes a culture of government employee permissiveness that in my opinion also helped to enable the inevitable Parson Wooten embezzlement extravaganza.
State Auditor Elaine Howle’s latest investigative report detailing whistleblower-prompted “allegations of improper governmental activities” could be easy to shrug off given the reality of the human condition. Some people behave badly, whether they work for state government or anywhere else.
But the report’s “substantiated” allegations – involving the “theft of state funds, waste of public resources, improper … travel expenses” and the like – provide a window into the way California agencies deal with, or don’t deal with, problem employees.
The first case involves a manager at the State Water Resources Control Board who the report said embezzled $3,500 in state funds and then proceeded to cover it up.
She directed “a moving company under contract with the state to take the surplus property to a local recycling center … instructing the movers to obtain payment in cash. … She then took the cash to her house,” according to the report. After finding out about the investigation, the manager filed “a police report stating that someone had broken into her personal vehicle and stolen the funds.”
Again, people do bad things. The department’s bureaucratic response, however, is disturbing. After being caught, the manager repaid $2,518, but “still owes the water board $994 in recycling proceeds.” Her punishment: “Prior to the completion of our investigation, the manager transferred to another state agency.”
The auditor recommends “reasonable efforts to recover” the money and contacting the agency she now works for “to make certain the manager is not in a position to misuse or embezzle additional state funds.” It also suggests a new recycling policy. The water board agreed to implement these ideas, including the no-duh suggestion of contacting the district attorney.
Had an employee in the private sector been suspected of embezzlement, that employee almost certainly would have been fired and probably arrested – not transferred to a different department. In the bureaucracy, it takes a time-consuming investigation to get officials even thinking about some obvious responses.
“For a misbehaving public employee, it’s a win-win situation,” said Richard Rider, chairman of the San Diego Taxfighters. “If you get caught, the downside is very little.” Given the report, Rider’s statement doesn’t appear to be an exaggeration.
In another case, an Employment Development Department employee lived in Sacramento but had a job based in the Los Angeles area. Her supervisors inaccurately designated her work headquarters as Sacramento, according to the report, thus allowing her to improperly collect almost $27,000 in travel expenses. The result: She retired from the state and began collecting her pension. The auditor suggested training ideas to fix the problem. Seriously.
In yet another case in the report: “After lying to his manager about needing to telecommute so that he could care for his ailing mother, a full-time employee at the Department of Industrial Relations … took advantage of his manager’s neglect of his supervisory duties ... to work a second full-time job." He was paid more than $12,000 for hours he never worked. So the department placed a memorandum in his personnel file and gave his neglectful manager a “counseling memorandum … rather than an adverse action.”
The latter would have been “too harsh,” officials said, given the department lacked “an effective telecommuting policy.”
These cases were investigated under the California Whistleblower Protection Act, but the situation it documents is common. In one case revealed in 2013, the auditor reported that Caltrans employees falsified data testing the safety of California bridges – something that could have had life-threatening consequences had any bridge been prone to failure.
One employee “linked to much of the falsified data” was allowed “to retire with full benefits,” the Sacramento Bee reported, noting it will be hard to stop him from getting other state employment given “all references to (his) misconduct were removed from his personnel records.”
The state needs more oversight, but Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, announced this month he is shutting down the Senate’s Office of Oversight and Outcomes, which reported on the misuse of state funds at various agencies. Then again, what’s the difference? Employees caught misbehaving don’t seem to face serious consequences.
Councilmember Terry Tornek is running for Mayor of PeeDee this year, and his position in the Parson Wooten Embezzlement Scandal is a unique one. Is Terry the resourceful hero that uncovered the crime as he often claims, or the feckless and distracted Councilmember who sat on the Committee that oversaw Parson Wooten's den of iniquity and never once during his previous six years in that saddle called into question a single bogus invoice?
Ross S. Selvidge, Ph.D., described somewhere as being "an elected trustee of the Pasadena Area Community College District," wrote to the Pasadena Star News with this load of worries on his mind:
The lesson here is that taxpayers' last official line of defense against malfeasance or just plain incompetence and inefficiency in government is their elected officials' willingness to ask critical questions, not settle for evasion or equivocation, and to enforce accountability. Any elected official who puts up with complacency or just the "following of procedures" is failing in his or her duty and is a recipe for disaster.
Pasadena is very fortunate that Tornek had not only the personal expertise to detect a potential serious problem with materials presented to him but also, and just as important, the persistence to require that the questions he had be answered.
In the case at hand, when Tornek raised his serious concerns, the city employee who is now accused of embezzlement had already been out on administrative leave for several months for an "unrelated personnel matter" (and was soon after terminated). That employee was no longer even in a position to continue with the alleged embezzlement. But if Tornek had not sensed the potential irregularities when he did and then insisted on answers to his questions, it is possible that the alleged embezzlement may never have been discovered and this all might have just faded into obscurity.
We must have elected officials who have both the expertise to ask critical questions and the strength of character to not shrink from pressing for answers when their duty requires it.
There is another point of view, which was expressed in the form of a couple of comments Monday evening on this blog:
My personal opinion? Dr. Selvidge is apparently a man with rather low performance standards for elected officials. But then again, isn't he is one himself? And given some of the recent bizarre woes at PCC, not exactly a stranger to administrative bafflement?
But you might disagree with that.
But you might disagree with that.