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Guard Against Fraud in City

In some small communities and school districts, officials and taxpayers have few options but to place a certain amount of trust in those who handle financial affairs. As we have seen repeatedly during the past few years, that can lead to trouble.

Clerks, treasurers and other local government employees who have their hands on the till can dip them in and pull out cash with relative ease when no one is looking over their shoulders. But for periodic state audits required in both West Virginia and Ohio, some of the crooks would never be caught.

But Wheeling, though by no stretch of the imagination a big city, has substantial municipal government resources. Clearly, more of them need to be devoted to looking over the shoulders of those with the ability to rob taxpayers.

As we reported this week, former city Human Resources Director Teresa Hudrlik has pleaded guilty to a federal charge related to theft of money from the municipality. Her agreement to make $80,000 in restitution indicates she was quite active in her schemes during the less than two years she engaged in them.

After Hudrlik entered her guilty plea, City Manager Robert Herron indicated in a statement that safeguards are being put in place to avoid a similar problem in the future. During a Tuesday Wheeling City Council meeting, Mayor Glenn Elliott asked that Herron provide a written report “as to what those steps are.”

Good. Elliott and council members should review Herron’s plan. They may be able to improve upon it.

As Herron suggested Tuesday, making all aspects of his strategy public would not be a good idea. Why tip crooks off to your tactics meant to thwart them?

Two things are crystal clear, however:

First, the opportunities for fraud are endless. Virtually every municipal employee has the ability to rip off taxpayers in some way. Close oversight by their direct superiors is necessary.

Second, a limited number of people in city government are capable, like Hudrlik, of really socking it to taxpayers. The overwelming majority are honest, but it takes just one bad apple to do substantial harm.

The best safeguard against such corruption is more frequent and intensive monitoring of their work — looking over their shoulders, in effect. That will divert some municipal officials from other important tasks. Unfortunately, as Hudrlik’s temporary success demonstrates, it is a cost city government will have to bear.

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