To Live and Take in D.C.

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, December 25, 2007

In this season of giving, of caring for your fellow man, let me lift a glass to the government of the District of Columbia, which, through a combination of venality and incompetence, has enabled so many people to become richer -- much, much richer -- than you, dear reader, can possibly imagine. In Washington, Santa's not just profligate. He's been on a bender.

For those of you reading this by the dim glow of a yule log, do not for a moment think that I am referring to the U.S. government, what with its congressional earmarks for bridges to nowhere and inability to account for gazillions of dollars spent in Iraq, not to mention the decision to go to war itself.

No, I am referring to the government of the city, the municipality, the hamlet nestled on the historic Potomac. Incredibly, one woman alone is said to have masterminded a scheme in which she and others allegedly stole at least $20 million from the city -- and the city never noticed.

Move over, Illinois. Eat your heart out, Maryland. Doff your cap, New York. Have some respect, New Jersey, or, for that matter, Louisiana, a state long admired for its political corruption. That sort of stuff is old-fashioned. In all those places, it's the politicians who steal from the people. In Washington, it's the people who steal from the people.

Take the scheme that withdrew millions upon millions of dollars from the city's coffers. Not a politician involved. Instead, those accused are all bureaucrats and their alleged accessories -- prominently, a mid-level manager in the Office of Tax and Revenue. All they did was allegedly issue tax refunds to dummy corporations and then cash the checks themselves. They are accused of having done this for years. A Post analysis said the total could be up to $44 million.

In a similar manner, an executive responsible for 17 charter schools took or illegally steered more than $800,000. Others in the school system dipped into student recreation funds, not quite taking candy from babies, just field trips and the like. Again, notice the absence of elected officials or corrupt politicians. Why, one school official took $30,000 from the chess club of a school for emotionally disturbed pupils -- a dark chapter not even Dickens could envisage.

The Santa Clausiness of the D.C. government is almost beyond comprehension. It seems that all you have to do is work there and money just falls into your lap. For instance, The Post reported just last week on how a former principal requested a grant to train teachers and the school system authorized $3 million in a single day. And when she went to pick up the first $1 million, the school system just handed over the money -- no silly, fussy contract or anything like that.

The things that happen in Washington for some reason stay in Washington. They get almost no national attention, even though the town practices corruption on a scale that compares to kleptocracies like Nigeria or kingdoms like Saudi Arabia. In Italy, something like 20 percent of the economy is underground. In Washington, the figure is precisely 78 percent. I made that up, but it feels right.

As a former Maryland reporter, I write with appropriate awe. In my day, back-to-back governors were convicted of corruption. (One of them, Spiro T. Agnew, had to resign as U.S. vice president because of money that stuck to his fingers while he was governor of Maryland.) A U.S. senator went to jail for corruption, and so did two county executives, the speaker of the House, a congressman and a state senator. One legislator was flushed out of the state House by federal marshals seeking him on business matters relating to heroin. He was later murdered gangland style. Maryland's record, I naively thought, would stand forever.

But now Washington has left Maryland in the dust. It is not just the Enronian $20 million, possibly a modern-day record for municipal corruption. It's the democratization of corruption and the sheer heartlessness of it. Am I naive? Would any of the Maryland crooks I covered (and liked) have stolen money from emotionally disturbed children? I don't think so. These people were soft, unimaginative -- conservative gents who embraced tradition, shunned innovation, and by and large thought a gridlock of Jaguars in the driveway was in awfully bad taste.

Yet for all its accomplishments, Washington gets no respect. When, periodically, the city screams for statehood, others laugh or scoff or do both. A state? Pshaw. It's a mere city. No majestic mountains. No sandy beaches. But look again, I say. See what this city has done, how it has taken its own wealth (and that of others) and spread it around. Most Americans think of Washington as the city that keeps on taking. But believe me, it's really the city that keeps on giving.

Ho, ho, ho.

cohenr@washpost.com

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