by Representative Don Turner
Embezzlement appears to have become an epidemic here in Vermont. Over the last several years there have been numerous cases of embezzlement reported. Many of these cases involve long-term, trusted employees who have earned the respect of their peers, managers and supervisors alike. When the embezzler is finally exposed or caught, no one can believe that the person is capable of committing the crime. Both the people they serve and those that they have served under can’t believe that this thievery occurred right in front of their eyes. I believe that a dialogue must begin this session to create a thoughtful, inclusive and systematic approach to deterring this behavior.
First and foremost, I believe that the Legislature should consult with the auditor, attorney general, FBI and others who have been deeply involved in this issue before creating any new laws or policies. Educating and promoting the tremendous value of internal agency controls as a system of prevention is vital, when action is of utmost importance. I believe that the creation of new laws or policies without the presence of adequate internal agency controls will not produce the desired results and is not the best use of the Legislature’s time and effort. My suggestion for agencies would be to enhance and utilize their existing system of checks and balances while adding more stringent reporting requirements. These efforts alone may indeed be enough to deter this type of behavior in some cases and would surely improve accountability of taxpayers’ money.
For those that are not deterred by enhanced internal control systems, I feel that we must pass the legislation offered by the auditor. His red flag checklist and fraud training proposals extend the auditor’s discretionary authority to expect those with certain fiduciary and oversight duty to sign off (certify) that they have reviewed the controls over cash. It would also require everyone in these types of positions to take a three-hour fraud prevention training program. This authority would be expressed through the creation of legislation. The legislation would also create a reporting requirement. Any entity that receives state funds or utilizes federal funds via a pass-through arrangement would be required to report to the state on these matters. Gone would be the days of these agencies using taxpayer dollars without oversight or reporting requirements. Enhanced accountability standards here will likely lead to improved transparency.
Another area that I feel needs to be thoroughly examined is the process for hiring the position of city or town treasurer. Many municipalities still elect a citizen from their community to this position. This has worked for decades and many would say that it still works fine today. However, I believe that municipal finance has become far too complex for the average individual to comprehend and manage effectively. The people in these positions are responsible for handling our tax dollars on a daily basis. I feel that they should be adequately educated, proficient and able to explain where every tax dollar was spent. Further, I feel that we have to seriously look at changing the manner in which these important positions are filled while protecting the integrity of our constitution. As a result, I suggest that in the future these positions be filled through the employment process and not the election process. This change would enhance the integrity of the position and surely lead to more accountability and transparency for the taxpayer.
In closing, I would be remiss if I did not reiterate the importance of oversight, checks and balances and accountability in the use of taxpayer funds to operate all levels of government. It is your government, it owes you a clear explanation of how and where your tax dollars are being spent. Demand a clear and easy to understand explanation and please never be intimidated or afraid to ask questions.