Other People’s Money

money grab 0919

I had an employee once who was a member of the ever-evolving booster club at the high school. At that time, the volunteers had a system: after events, one of them took the locked cash box home, while another took the key. My employee thought it was a good system, and allowed as how if she were entrusted with both key and box, she might be sorely tempted to help herself to the till.

My life of crime was pretty well contained to the days when Kent Baril and I were young and had the run of campus where our dads both taught. The faculty lounge was part of the student union back then, and there always seemed to be doughnuts set out for faculty members next to a little plate where honest people put their nickel or dime. Kent and I would finger the money, which was supposed to make people think we were putting some in, and then help ourselves to one doughnut each and be on our way.

I’m sorry if you think less of me now, but I did come to see the error of my ways and no longer take things without permission. Or the appropriate cash.

I don’t really understand the urge to embezzle, but it’s certainly out there, as I read an extremely sordid story of nearly every elected official in Front Royal, Virginia, coming under investigation for the embezzlement of massive millions in Economic Development Gone Awry.

Now, I rather think that any “economic development” is generally money gone awry, and from what I’ve seen over the course of my lifetime in Gunnison I must conclude that the only economic gain is for whoever is working for the development program. One time, after we the people of Gunnison County paid for the director and his wife, we economically helped them to new jobs — in Oklahoma, when instead of bringing some weirdly suspect helicopter company here, they went to it.

Once upon another time many well-meaning business types in Gunnison got together and brought in the “Main Street USA” program. By the time the program foundered, as they always seem to, and the out-of-town director, hired at great expense, was gone, it turned out he had helped himself to so much more than just his princely salary, paid for by a grant and off the backs of Main Street merchants making a fraction of that.

There are numerous local instances, big and small, of people helping themselves to other people’s money. And these are just the people who got caught.

One local woman used the “small town” mentality to her advantage, as she stole from business after business. No one ever seemed to prosecute her as she moved from job to job, but she was summarily fired from every position. I don’t know if subsequent employers didn’t bother to check with past companies, or the past companies didn’t bother to disclose what they knew to be true, and she helped herself to insurance payments made in cash (including from at least two of my friends), customer money from nearly every fast-food restaurant in town, and even the Parent-Teacher Association before enough people wised up that she ended up being a self-employed cosmetic consultant. She probably continued to take customers’ cash, given her lengthy history.

We at Pat’s found ourselves taking part in a case that did get prosecuted. We had a department chair from the college/university call to ask if he could talk to us, and when he arrived, he asked us about invoices purportedly from our company that we never sent. Kara ended up spending an hour or two with a police officer going through our real invoices to compare to the doctored invoices the department’s administrative assistant had “paid” with something like $22,000 in “petty” cash.

The woman took some plea bargain, paid restitution and sent us a letter of apology, but I don’t know if the lesson was learned or not. The lesson might be: it’s easier to get away with this than you think.

Sometimes you have to wonder what would happen if these people applied their ingenuity in an honest fashion. The effort they go to doesn’t seem worth it, until you realize that setting up a bunch of dummy and shell companies netted one man over half a million of the school district’s dollars.

He might still be at it, too, had he not made one incredibly stupid error that a sharp-eyed co-worker was quick to pick up on. For whatever dumb reason, he brought one of his shell corporation deposit stamps to work with him, then absent-mindedly left it next to a copier. One of the women in the finance office picked the stamp up and could think of no legitimate reason why it should be there, and that one little suspicion uncovered rampant corruption that had been missed by not only every internal control the district had in place at the time, but also every external audit.

That man was supposed to pay restitution too, but he’s serving serious jail time and the money only trickles in. He did own a hot-dog cart that the school district ended up with, and I read in last week’s paper how the high school kitchen staff and students spent hour upon hour to make it food-worthy and then vended from it this summer. A learning experience and fund-raiser, so it finally feels like the school district might get something back from that debacle.

I find it interesting how “sorry” these people always are, but only after they’re caught. I have to assume what they’re really sorry about is that they got caught.

My accountant used to be business partners with a man who made the news last year as the head of a Ponzi scheme that completely bankrupted many of his victims. (My accountant parted ways with him when he became more interested in investment than accounting.) He took their life savings and invested it in himself, and even when it all caught up to him he didn’t seem to be too worried. I think, right up until the moment the judge sentenced him to 20 years in prison, that he thought he could apologize and make a promise (likely never to be kept) to repay his victims and go on living his cushy lifestyle, funded by people like the couple in Crawford who lost their home, retirement savings and everything else to his scheme.

All of these pale in comparison to the chutzpah demonstrated by people in Front Royal, Virginia, who all appeared to be making six-figure salaries in a depressed area, but I guess for some people the money they have will never be enough, and it doesn’t matter whose money you appropriate as long as you can live your life in the manner to which you would like to become accustomed.

I know a lot of people who hardly have a dime to their name who would not only never think of taking money from their fellows, but would willingly give what they barely have to someone in real need. It’s a shame there are so many without a real need out there who take their money anyway.


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