Friday, June 10, 2016

Money for conscience, and the guilt is free

A few weeks ago I saw a newspaper article about a former school district coworker’s arrest. Tracy had been secretary-treasurer of the union I had belonged to, which was a volunteer job, and her paid job at the school district included being in charge of money collected for school building rentals.

According to the news article she had been embezzling from both money-handling assignments, and  between the two organizations had stolen over $100,000. The story saddened me — I liked Tracy — but if the article was correct, like her or not, Tracy was just another of the crooks I have worked with.

Tracy had hit on a scheme to take checks made out to the school district with no indication of purpose (no “for building rental” line, for instance) and deposited them into accounts she set up at a bank. The accounts were in the name of the union, and she would make withdrawals. She spent the money on things like her mortgage. Understandable, but still illegal.

She became just another person I worked with who had been caught stealing. It shouldn’t surprise me, but it did. After all, when someone gets away with embezzling for years they are doing something wrong, but they are doing that wrong right. They can be a very clever criminal, but getting caught is inevitable.

I first heard of a problem of employee theft in the school district shortly after getting my job in 1976. A man who worked for the carpenter department for 18 years was fired for using open school purchase orders to buy more job materials than was necessary, and re-selling the excess. That was followed by the story of a grounds department foreman with phantom employees. We had over 60 schools (now over 100) in the district at the time, so a lot of summer help is hired.  The foreman made up names and social security numbers (a lot easier in those pre-computer days) and created employees. When the paychecks would come in he would cash them. It was a scheme that worked until the day he got sick, and his assistant foreman was obliged to distribute the checks. Not recognizing the names, the assistant turned the checks for the phantoms back to the payroll office, and the shit, as they say, hit the fan. For a few stolen extra dollars every month the foreman lost his job, and with the job his state retirement and his medical benefits. The cost of stealing always seemed too high to me, not to mention the public humiliation of being branded a thief.

Large or small, stealing is stealing. I saw people get fired for what would be pocket change. Secretaries who handled cash for school lunches might dip into the till, and when the accounts didn’t balance could lose their jobs over nickels and dimes.

A few years later I was handling mail for the entire school district and was made aware of conscience money by opening mail addressed to the school district to ascertain where it needed to be routed. A typical unsigned note accompanying cash would be, “I worked as a teacher thirty years ago, and I took some school supplies home. I believe this will cover what I stole.” There might be a twenty dollar bill or two in the envelope, but really, I saw all amounts of cash, usually small. I never learned what happened to the money I turned over to the superintendent’s secretary, but she is the one who made me aware of that phenomenon of confessing one’s past sins by sending money.

But back to Tracy and the embezzlement that cost her a job of many years, and may well land her in jail. I thought the issue of handling money for building rentals or sporting events had been solved back in the 1930s. While a warehouseman for the school district in the seventies I helped take the files for a long dead district superintendent from an old office to the state archives. Out of curiosity I looked in his files and found a letter about a man who had done Tracy’s job in the mid-1930s. He had stolen money that had been collected for high school football games, and spent it (I remember he had “spent $5.00 for a hotel room in Chicago” as part of his embezzlement.) The letter I saw in the files was the superintendent telling the chief accountant for the district to write off the debt, because he knew the thief wasn’t going to pay back the $200 he stole. The superintendent said they needed to change the procedures for collecting the money, and increase the accountability by using two employees, one checking the other, in handling the funds. So why wasn’t that used for Tracy?

Tracy deserves to be punished, but her story enforces my belief that some people need to be saved from themselves. Had the right procedures been in place she would not have been able to steal, and the temptation would not have led to her picture in the newspaper along with a story telling the world about her $100,000 embezzlement. She also would have kept her benefits, which to me are more important than money.

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