editorial (2007-46)

Theft and Ethics Violations and Knox County

Editorial

The two indiscretions are different animals entirely, but theyâ’re both worth addressing

Knox County Auditor Richard Wallsâ’ ongoing review of the countyâ’s credit card purchases by employees issued so-called purchasing cards is turning up evidence of considerable abuses of the card privilege.

Questionable meal charges, gasoline purchases for private automobiles ,and other apparent non-governmental expenses are turning on P-card receipts. Wallsâ’ audit, begun after much larger charges that violated county policy were turned up and complained about by county commissioners earlier this year, should be competed soon, perhaps by monthâ’s end, but evidence of poor card practices keeps emerging.

The News Sentinel published a series of articles on the subject this week, and a lot of apparent, if petty, rip-offs showed up in the audit figures examined.

The county mayorâ’s response to the initial charges of card abuse led to the suspension of 171 cards and the dismissal of three employees, including the county finance director, and the disciplining of another department head. Mayor Mike Ragsdale has taken the flak for the abuses, and he says he has reformed the reduced program and instituted new training and checks on P-card use to insure that it is constantly reviewed internally by the executive branch.

To which we say: County employees ought to have known better than to fill their own gas tanks or feed themselves here in town at county expense. Why the training and review practices werenâ’t in place before the revelations of abuse shows a disregard for the appropriate uses of tax money.

It is true, as Dwight Van de Vate, the mayorâ’s spokesman, says, that meals bought for legitimate purposes are standard practice in both the public and private sectors. Itâ’s a courtesy extended when the mealtime discussion advances the public interest. But using a county P-card when one is short of cash for personal needs is a different proposition, and one that the mayor and his staff must stop.

One of the interesting things that turned up in the News Sentinel examination of the records reviewed so far is that NS editorial employees, including Editor Jack McElroy and a couple of reporters, were treated to lunches at county expense by Ragsdale and/or Van de Vate. While those mealtime discussions may have advanced some county public-interest items, it was in apparent violation of the NS Editorial Code of Conduct, according to its own reporting, which said the code prohibits the acceptance of free meals in the course of employeesâ’ professional activities.

That is particularly ironic in this instance, as it demonstrates how difficult codes of conduct are to enforce by and for private interests. It is hardly an indication that the journalists were trying to pad their own pockets, as the explanation was that they sometimes trade paying for lunches back and forth with government sources.

Another journalist whose lunch was bought by Van de Vate, according to the receipts, was Joe Sullivan, the former Metro Pulse publisher who is a contributing editor to our publication. Sullivan says he doesnâ’t remember the occasion and that he usually tries to avoid being treated to meals, especially by public-relations people. He wasnâ’t bound by any formal ethics policy at the time, however, as the former MP rule of thumb was not to accept any consideration that couldnâ’t be eaten or drunk at one sitting.

Just last week, MP employees signed the companywide Code of Ethics document for E.W. Scripps Co., which owns the News Sentinel and whose subsidiary bought Metro Pulse earlier this year. That code appears to say only that business gifts, such as meals, valued at $100 or more should not be accepted by us. OK, we wonâ’t, but itâ’s still hard to enforce hard-and-fast rules that are subject to interpretation by people who maintain their own personal sense of ethics. The Scripps code tells us we mustnâ’t take bribes or kickbacks, either. Did we really have to be told that? If so, we should be in another line of work, and so should government employees who use government credit cards for personal expenses.

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