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Robbed blind: Don't try this at work

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Suppose you've been taking money from the company where you work. You took $10,000 here, $10,000 there until you had so much cash you didn't know what to do with all of it.

Suppose the money came from charity events your company used to raise money each year, or the checks collected from the annual charity fund drive. All told, you've walked off with $33,000 this year. The money was meant to be spent on poor and foster children who otherwise wouldn't have a Christmas, so it's a bit difficult to explain what you're still doing holding on to it in March, months after it was supposed to be spent.

Then the local newspaper does an article on how more than $100,000 is missing from your company's charitable effort, which your salary pays you, in part, to manage. So you freak out. You collect the cash you still have lying around, plus stuff like earrings and a DVD player that you've bought for yourself with it, and you bring it all in to work and turn it back over, knowing you've been busted and hoping they'll buy your explanation for what you are doing still holding on to it.

Try this at Bank of America, or just about anywhere else in the private sector, and the police would immediately be called and you'd wind up in handcuffs. Top-level management would be informed about what is going on. People in between them and you would likely be fired.

But apparently, at the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, it doesn't work that way. Show up with the money spilling out of your pockets and you won't be arrested, much less fired. Middle management will cover up for you, and upper management will cover up for them.

Two weeks ago, The Charlotte Observer reported that an employee who helped manage the Giving Tree program returned $33,000 nine months ago. Incredibly, a county auditor and unnamed "officials" hadn't "realized" the money had been returned until two weeks ago. The auditor has been removed from her position, but is still receiving full pay from the county, another situation you'd never find in the private sector, especially not in this economy.

It's still not clear what happened to all of the rest of the $162,000 the county can't account for from the Giving Tree program it runs. County Manager Harry Jones told county taxpayers over the summer that we would likely never know what happened to all of the money.

Incredibly, nine months after the money was returned, some county commissioners, who are elected by the county's voters, are still fighting to learn the names of those involved. In an interview two weeks ago with NewsTalk 1110 WBT, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Karen Bentley said she still hasn't been able to get county staff to disclose the name of the person who returned the loot after the Observer turned up the heat. That's because while Jones works for the county commission and can be fired by a majority of commissioners, county commissioners can't fire those who work for Jones -- only Jones can.

It's a situation Jones has taken full advantage of. First, he stacked a committee tasked with investigating the whole affair with top-level staffers who answer to him. Only one commissioner who sat on the committee, which Jones also sat on, was interested in a thorough investigation.

When the committee ruse didn't make the controversy go away, Jones took to bullying a donor to the county-run charity who had complained about irregularities. Jones contacted his employer, Bank of America, even though the donor had given money and made the complaints on his own time. That backfired, too, leading to more embarrassing ink in local papers.

It's a frustrating state of affairs considering that voters hold the commissioners responsible at the polls for the performance of county staff. If a majority of commissioners choose to brush aside tough questions about the situation, and to reward Jones' behavior with a $38,000 bonus, as they did earlier this year, there's not much board members like Bentley, a Republican, can do as a member of the minority party on the board.

Even more appalling is the lack of interest on the part of the board's Democratic majority -- especially board chairman Jennifer Roberts -- in combing back through 10 years of Giving Tree operations to find out if the same employees have been robbing the county's neediest children for years. (The one exception would be Democratic Commissioner Harold Cogdell, who spent time in foster care as a child and has asked tough questions and pushed for real answers.)

Some of the same commissioners who are full of such righteous zeal for the county's poorest kids when shaming the county's taxpayers into higher taxes for bonds and social programs have now fallen eerily silent or become defensive when those same kids are robbed by county workers.

The whole thing stinks to high heaven. With one-party rule in this county and thus at the police department, it's hard to believe that we'll ever get all the answers to these questions without a federal investigation. It is rumored that one is underway. Let's hope that's the case.

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