Catch them if we can

How do you solve a problem like Elaine Boyer?

Boyer this past week pleaded guilty to using tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars for her own benefit while serving as a DeKalb County commissioner. No serious person believes such problems are limited to her, or her county.

Georgia’s 159 counties are governed by more than 800 commissioners, not to mention county managers, clerks and other employees — and their counterparts in cities across the state. Our system of government is built on a presumption of trustworthiness that may hold up in the vast majority of cases, but which causes great damage when it doesn’t.

So, how do you keep people like Boyer from taking advantage of their access to the public purse? I posed that question to a handful of elected officials, former officials and people who hold officials accountable. Here are some of their thoughts.

First, and what should be most obvious: If you want public officials to keep their hands out of the cookie jar, stop handing them cookie jars.

Boyer, like the other DeKalb commissioners, maintained a discretionary budget of more than $200,000 a year. That’s a tempting source of money with few checks if, as in Boyer’s case, a commissioner runs into personal financial trouble.

DeKalb commissioners have most often spent that money on items that, if perfectly legal, are still highly questionable: from advertisements and websites that blur the line between informing the public and electioneering to staff hired and/or paid outside the county budget. Even arguably legitimate expenses, such as office supplies, may have been better bought in bulk by the county.

Even with better controls on spending, though, some people will get creative. Education and deterrence alone aren’t sufficient: I heard stories of public officials committing offenses they were specifically warned not to try.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do a better job of seeking out and punishing the guilty. One idea I’ve written about before is creating a statewide grand jury so that local loyalties — or rivalries — don’t interfere with the justice system.

But before a case can be brought to a grand jury, someone needs to investigate possible wrongdoing. Which brings me to the most interesting idea I heard.

In the 2002 film “Catch Me If You Can,” Leonardo DiCaprio plays a highly successful con artist finally brought to justice by an FBI agent played by Tom Hanks. The twist, however, comes when Hanks employs DiCaprio as a kind of staff expert to help agents understand and investigate other fraudsters.

The idea: Open a small office within the GBI staffed with cops, lawyers and ex-politicians. The last group would help the first two groups know where to look for kickbacks, bribes, dirty money dealings and the like. The ex-pols wouldn’t have to be former crooks as in the movie, which was based on a true story. They’d just need to be experts in the financial workings of local governments.

Who knows? It may be a case in which life imitating art imitating life produces some artful real-life results.

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