Story of Dixon sparks ideas for preventing fraud and building trust in city government

Last night I went to the Egyptian Theatre to watch “All the Queen’s Horses,” the documentary of Rita Crundwell’s embezzlement of more than $53 million from City of Dixon when she was treasurer-comptroller there.

I won’t spoil the film, because even a person who followed Crundwell’s arrest and the aftermath quite closely is bound to find a couple of surprises. If you haven’t seen it, you deserve an equal opportunity to scrape your jaw off the floor once or twice. 🙂

Let’s explore, instead, the general lack of curiosity, assertiveness or persistence, when red flags pop up, to get questions answered to one’s satisfaction.

Why do so many people ignore questionable activities? A lot of it’s the expected consequences. If you reported potentially illegal behavior at your workplace, would your employer give lip service but ignore the problem, address the party involved, or plot retaliation for you? I’ll bet you don’t have to think much about it to answer. Chances are you’ve interacted enough with the culture there to know already.

One way honest organizations can help counter “see no evil or else” workplace cultures is to build clarity and consistency into permissions, procedures, and penalties that place processes above personalities.

You know who has clarity? DeKalb’s finance advisory committee does. FAC has an explicitly stated responsibility to scrutinize and evaluate the city’s financial situation so it can advise the council. Clarity of purpose supports the FAC members’ work. It’s a license for inquiry that legitimizes them and de-legitimizes anyone who tries to dodge questions or get defensive.

Similarly, I’m unambiguously obligated at my job to watch out for and report activities that signal funny business like money laundering. But a big difference between my company and City of DeKalb is how my duty is treated within the larger context. Everybody takes the training, knows the hotline number, and understands the penalties for willful blindness. And support for mandated reporting is one piece of a framework of policies and procedures that apply universally, with ethics at its core.

To help prevent fraud — and more generally to build trust of city government in the community — it’s my opinion that DeKalb’s most promising vehicle would be a better ethics code. The city should expand the current pathetic excuse for an ordinance to include, at minimum, a range of conflict of interest rules, a complaint process, and an ethics commission with teeth that is as independent as we can make it.

Related: Illinois’ model ethics ordinance and City of DeKalb