“Civil Servants,” Thieves and the Public Trust

Federal employees should be the “best and brightest” according to President Kennedy. Is that still our goal or has something happened?

The internet is changing American society. As with any new technology that is widely adopted, we know there will be changes but predicting what these changes will be is problematic.

Here is one change no one has apparently predicted.

Like most federal employees, I have always had a view of the workforce as being honest, trustworthy, and generally above reproach. Federal employees ensure we have a government free of corruption. We rely on this as a way to ensure we have a stable society.

Americans generally pay their taxes on time and pay wililngly, if reluctantly. We trust the federal government to treat citizens fairly. And we trust the federal workforce to ensure that the money paid in taxes each year is spent for good reasons–or at least for projects and expenses that Congress has authorized.

With millions of federal and civilian employees, there are bound to be some crooks. Having worked in the personnel field for a number of years as a federal employee, I saw a few cases of fraud and abuse but the vast majority of personnel cases were usually minor–from abuse of leave to not showing up for work on time or an occasional fight.

In more than 25 years of working for the government as an employee and as a contractor, I saw or read about very few cases of a federal employee who was a common criminal. The newsletters and newspapers that provided information to the federal workforce very seldom had news items about federal employees stealing money or taking advantage of their federal job for personal enrichment.

In one office in which I worked, the employees had a standing joke. As a result of a rare occurrence of a fellow fed who was caught taking a bribe, we would make wisecracks about no one in the office having to worry because we didn’t control funds or offer a service that had a high value among the criminal set hanging out on the streets and offices in Washington.

In retrospect, it may have been as simple as “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.” Since no one talked about or printed information about bribes, convictions, and outright theft of government money by federal employees, it didn’t exist.

Whether such an innocent state actually existed among the federal workforce or not, it was a reassuring thought. We were working with honest, professionals who cared about the character and welfare of our country. While others may engage in criminal behavior, none of our colleagues would do such a thing.

With the advent of the internet, any such innocence or self–righteous attitudes are rapidly disappearing.

There is hardly a week that goes by that does not reveal multiple news items about federal employees engaging in criminal behavior. (In fairness, by the time the case gets to court, the term is usually “former federal employee” as the agency has fired the miscreant.)

Federal employees are going to jail and paying fines. Not for missing work or failing to follow a supervisor’s order. They are going to jail for taking bribes, selling government information, conspiring to enrich themselves by taking advantage of their access to federal money and information or stealing government property for their own financial gain. There is also apparently no shortage of pedophiles or sexual predators among the federal workforce. We know these people exist in our society. It is disturbing, and perhaps still shocking, to find out that there are sexual predators using government positions (and equipment) designed to protect the public as a way to more effectively prey on our children.

It may be that federal prosecutors have gotten more aggressive about prosecuting federal employees who happen to be common criminals. Perhaps, in a simpler time, federal agencies just did not want the negative publicity about one of their employees selling government information to a crime syndicate so that the protector of the public interest could stash a few thousand or a few hundred thousand dollars away as part of a future retirement program.

But, if that was the case a decade or two earlier, agencies and prosecutors have lost their innocence. They now seem to aggressively pursue federal employees who are stealing money or helping others break our laws in some way. In some cases, a federal employee appears to get a bigger fine or jail sentence because he or she has violated the public trust in ways a common thief could not have done.

Perhaps the thieves, criminals and sexual predators have always been among us and it just wasn’t reported.

Having spent countless hours searching for news items for and about federal employees the past several years while writing and reporting news items for FedSmith, it is apparent there is no shortage of the criminal class in the federal workforce. Many of the news items are in local newspapers. A federal employee selling Social Security numbers or taking a bribe in small town America or being arrested for allegations about preying on young children is big news in that town–often because the federal employee is a respected member of the community and sometimes among the highest wage earner in a poor, rural area.

If that is the case, the internet has contributed to our loss of innocence.

Perhaps there are now more criminals among our civil servants because of a general loss of civility in our society. We are assaulted by rude, obnoxious people talking on cell phones in public and in strange, inappropriate places. In many restaurants, having a quiet conversation with a friend is difficult because of the raising of a voice at the next table with a resounding “hello” that carries through the entire room where all diners are “treated” to a detailed explanation of a person’s personal life.

The lack of civiilty among people is a topic that is a concern to many people. Typing the phrase “lack of civility” into a Google search engine will quickly reveal more than 77,200 results.

If no one cares about anyone else, why should a federal employee care about how federal money is spent or care about the impact one person’s actions will have on the public perception of an agency or the federal government?

We can all enjoy the benefits of modern technology. We like the convenience of cell phones, the beauty of a picture on a plasma TV set, being able to read a hometown newspaper anywhere in the country on the day it is published. But, as we evolve and become adjusted to new technology, we may be losing our innocence and our trust in government.

What are your views on this issue? Has there been an increase in criminal activity among federal employees or do we just have more information?

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47