Just when you think that maybe the District of Columbia government is getting its act together, along comes the news of a scam so large, so breathtaking in its sheer audacity that even the cynics among us cannot quite believe that people charged with the public trust could be so profoundly corrupt. $20 million dollars has gone missing, not from any old government office, but the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue, the very public officials charged with collecting our money to use it for the public good. Or, apparently, purchases of luxury goods at Nieman Marcus, several mansions, and who-knows-what else. All of this happened on the watch of D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Ghandi, a decent and smart financial manager whose good work in turning around the city’s financial management and credit rating now appear to be at some risk of diminishment because of the utter corruption, selfishness and astonishing immorality of his subordinates.
The city and its citizens will be the biggest loser because of this scam. Already, out in the blog-o-sphere, those narrow minds who already take a dim view of the District are gloating over this latest example of humanity’s dark side — as if corruption never happened in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago or elsewhere — Jack Abramoff and a few congressmen, anyone? But, sadly, for all the wrong reasons, people will use this incident to say, “See, I told you they couldn’t govern themselves…” and the “they” word will be a thin veil over the racism that pervades too many perspectives on D.C. outside the Beltway, and even closer to home.
This large crime must not be allowed to tarnish the city’s great progress in the last several years. D.C. has truly come a long way from the dark days of bad management and corruption that required the Congressional imposition of the Financial Control Board. With the leadership of Mayor Anthony Williams and now Mayor Adrian Fenty, the District of Columbia is steadily improving fiscally, reputationally, even educationally. The economic boom in the city is clear in many places where new homes and new businesses have replaced once-abandoned blocks. Chancellor Michelle Rhee is bringing new energy and vision to the D.C. Public Schools. Thousands of people — citizens, business leaders, academics and politicians — are working together to ensure that the District of Columbia continues to grow in stature and stability as the home town where the nation’s capital also resides.
Mayor Fenty must act quickly to address the conditions in the D.C. Tax Office that allowed this shameful crime to occur. He and Chancellor Rhee must also act quickly to address another scandal that emerged last week concerning the management of student activity funds in the schools. The fact of these crimes is sad; but the measure of the city’s strength will be found in how well and how quickly the leadership moves to root out the co-conspirators and put safeguards in place to be sure it doesn’t happen again.
Here at Trinity, we take great pride in the community of honor, symbolized in the Honor Agreement that students sign as freshmen, and repeated and reinforced at every exam period. Sometimes, students wonder why Trinity is so strict about the Honor System. My response is: just read the newspaper. Sadly, in too many places, dishonesty seems to be the norm, and institutions and people suffer greatly because of the corruption of a few. Just ask the former employees of Enron or Worldcomm, giant corporations that collapsed because of the crimes of greed of their executives.
We who work in education in the District of Columbia need to redouble our efforts to teach our students the most fundamental moral values of honesty and integrity. Too many children grow up today in a public climate that tolerates lies and deception, in households that teach them to take whatever is available whether it belongs to them or not. Children absorb the moral values of the adult community. When a public scandal like this week’s news breaks open, we need to use the opportunity to teach children about why this behavior is wrong — not just because these public officials got caught, but because they took what did not belong to them, even worse, money they had access to because the public trusted them to handle the money with integrity.
Read Colbert I. King’s column on the scandal