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In Salaries Probe, Focus on Prevention

Strengthen Audits, Whistle-Blower Protection


Des Moines Register

April 10, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

When the state auditor revealed excessive salaries in a Des Moines-based job training program a week ago, it looked like the sort of story that would blow over in a day or two. Wrong. Turned out the story, as they say, had legs, and it's anyone's guess now which path they will take.

Last week's events appeared to be spinning out of control, but by week's end, criminal and administrative investigations were well under way. Now, state and local officials should step back and collect their senses before moving on to the next step.

Elected officials have a duty to determine what went wrong at every level, but the focus for them should be less about who is guilty than about seeking long-range prescriptions for a cure. Now that state and federal law-enforcement authorities have entered the picture, legislators should back off their investigation. The impromptu inquiry launched last week by the joint House and Senate Oversight Committees served a purpose, but now lawmakers should let the people with badges do their jobs.

The focus of the Legislature should be on what corrective actions are necessary to prevent this from happening again. For one, it seems obvious that state and federal audits should focus in more detail on administrative costs, including salaries and bonuses, rather than just looking at those expenses in the aggregate. Also, the Legislature should strengthen whistle-blower protections, to make it easier, and safer, for public employees to report misuse of public money.

Still, it comes down to everyone doing his or her job.

By way of illustration, State Auditor David Vaudt offered lawmakers the analogy of the buyer of a new house who is told by a building inspector that the house is equipped with a security alarm. Unfortunately, the buyer fails to turn on the alarm one day, and the house is burglarized. Blaming auditing systems for the sort of failure revealed last week, Vaudt said, is akin to blaming the building inspector for the failure of an alarm system that was not activated.

If people aren't vigilant in doing their jobs, this sort of thing can happen despite the best audit-control systems. You can't legislate vigilance.