When dishonest public employees embezzle taxpayers' money, they are doing more than revealing their own character flaws.

They also are exposing the failure of some public agencies to take simple measures to protect themselves - and the public - against fraud.

And when a local government gets embroiled in an embezzlement scandal, the least thing it loses is money. Even more valuable is the credibility that gets flushed away.

This region has had its share of accusations of embezzlement or misappropriation of public funds. The latest incident was reported earlier this month in the Estacada Rural Fire District, where Executive Financial Officer Pamela Kay Rowley-Butcher is being investigated for the alleged theft of up to $100,000 annually over a period of five to 10 years.

The alleged thefts may amount to an unbelievable 4 percent of the district's budget, which means that the case now rivals that of former West Linn Finance Director Elma Magkamit, who embezzled $1.4 million from that city.

Government losing credibility

The damage that such dishonest actions do to the cause of good government is incalculable.

Taxpayers are skeptical enough about government and its ability to effectively manage taxpayers' money without being confronted with out-and-out proof that a few employees are stealing from public coffers. And the West Linn and Estacada cases - while the most egregious - aren't the only recent examples of public employees being accused of financial misdeeds.

Out in the Reynolds School District, for example, last year a union treasurer was charged with pilfering more than $150,000 from the teachers' union over nearly six years. That was union, not taxpayer, money, but the incident hardly placed public employees in a good light.

These and other cases would be easy to prevent with proper financial controls. Larger units of government tend to have better financial practices, but no one should assume that its employees are immune to temptation.

Prevention is possible

While every organization is vulnerable, public-sector employers have a special obligation to make sure the money they collect from citizens is spent as it was intended to be used.

Even in small districts, basic precautions can be taken. At a minimum, an agency's rules must require that two employees sign all checks; that no person should have access to cash drawers without a witness; and that the person who writes the checks is not the same person who makes banking deposits and balances the checkbook.

Public agencies ought to consult with their bankers and independent auditors to ensure that they are doing all they can to prevent theft. Just by following standard accounting practices, they can minimize embezzling opportunities.

Removing the temptation is important - so is understanding what might drive a person to steal from his or her employer. Any employee who is known to have gambling debts or substance-abuse problems must be carefully watched. Other factors that can lead to increased worker theft include divorce, tax liens and bankruptcies.

Too often, it is the seemingly faithful employees who end up succumbing to temptation. That's why public agencies cannot rely on blind trust to protect their taxpayers. Without proper accounting systems and oversight procedures in place, the credibility of local governments will remain needlessly at risk.

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