Cracking Down On Corruption

“We all trusted Dawn when I came into office,” explained York Township Trustees President Ronald Graham, during a court proceeding this week. “We didn’t see it coming.”

Graham was speaking of the Belmont County township’s former fiscal officer, Dawn Lee. After pleading guilty of theft in office and other charges on Monday, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Her husband, Ryan Reed Lee, is to be tried on related charges June 3.

With the exception of Lee’s name, what Graham said could have come from the mouths of numerous other local government officials in both East Ohio and the Northern Panhandle during the past few years. Corruption among those who handle the finances for local entities has become a common story.

Lee was caught because of a visit by state auditors in 2015. Upon examining the township’s books, they found financial records to be “unauditable.” Use of that word sometimes indicates mere sloppines. In York Township, two years of investigations disclosed numerous violations of the law, at least some for personal gain.

That cost township residents money. It also meant, in the words of Ohio Auditor’s Office Public Integrity Officer Stephanie Anderson, “the trust of the community was fractured.”

Again, a common story.

How can such corruption be curbed? That may be quite a difficult question to answer. Abuse of public office goes back generations in both our states. Small towns, townships, counties and school districts are tempting targets for criminals, simply because of their size. Often, as was the case in York Township, elected officials must rely on a single individual to manage financial affairs.

They have little choice but to trust that woman or man.

Periodic audits required in both Ohio and West Virginia have led to the exposure of quite a few schemes similar to Lee’s. But abuse of taxpayers’ trust can go on for years before that happens. Small government entities cannot afford more frequent audits.

Legislators in both our states should consider appropriating additional funds for state auditors’ offices to step up the frequency with which local entities are audited. Even a more aggressive system of spot-checking the books might deter some corruption.

Money does not grow on trees, lawmakers in both Charleston and Columbus may reply. Taxpayers cannot afford to shell out millions of dollars more each year.

The question is, however, how much more loss of faith in local government can we afford?

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