The General Services Administration scandal is developing characteristics similar to some that turned up in the Watergate mess. For example, there have been allegations of:
Misfeasance refers to an otherwise legal act done in an improper way that causes harm. Malfeasance is activity that is in itself illegal. Nonfeasance is failure to do what duty requires.
Of the three, nonfeasance may be the most damaging.
One must expect occasional misconduct among human beings. If officials who get wind of misconduct take vigorous action to root is out, misconduct is held to a minimum and social codes are protected. But if those responsible for exposing misconduct remain passive and do nothing, there is danger to the entire social order. As Edmund Burke put it. "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
In the present case, there are allegations that a contractor told GSA, the Congress, the FBI, the General Accounting Office and even the Washington Post that, to obtain GSA contracts, he had been forced to make crooked payoffs, and had been compensated with payments for work GSA knew he hadn't done.
In effect, contractors and GSA employes were being illegally enriched, and the American taxpayers was footing the bill.
That much of the story is bad enough, but certainly not unique, or even unusual. Wherever a large amount of money exists - whether at a race track, in a bank vault, or in a government treasury - there will be thieves and sharp dealers scheming to get their hands on the loot.
As frauds proliferate, the public's need for vigilant officials increases. Nonfeasance becomes intolerable. If a contractor really made repeated statements that he had been forced to pay off GSA people in order to get contracts, why did years pass before the government's watchdogs took action? Who wasn't doing his job? Did inaction stem from a conscious cover-up or mere uninterest - people who couldn't be bothered?Or doesn't it matter? Is the sentry who falls asleep at his post as much a villain as the deliberate traitor?
In private talks with GSA officials, I have been told that the contractor's original complaints were not about bribes or kickbacks. They were just complaints that he wasn't getting his share of the business. One source told me that the contractor didn't begin to allege illegal acts until relatively recently; and when he did, GSA perked up its ears and began investigating.
As we all know, there are always at least two sides to a story, sometimes more. In the GSA scandal, the "We did act promptly" defense must be dully noted, even, though most of us are not in a position to evaluate it. My own fact-gathering in this cage has certainly been too superficial to provide a sound basis for judgment.
However, one point does seem to me to need attention.
Most cases of this kind end with the question of nonfeasance unresolved. The public is left to wonder whether there were people in high places who knew, or should have known, about irregularities - and therefore people in high places who could have and should have taken action, but didn't.
When government agents succeed in sending one crooked businessman or public servant to jail, the average voters feels the outcome was as good as could have been expected, He is content to let the matter end there.
I am not. to my mind, although an official's passivity in the face of evil may not involve him personally in that evil, neither does it relieve him of his legal responsibility to sound an alarm and in all other ways act to protect the public interest.
How good, I must ask myself, are those "good" men who do nothing and thereby permit evil to triumph?
I want them rooted out. I want their shortcomings spotlighted, and I want their inaction prosecuted as a signal to others. The public official who does not snap to attention when his agency is accused of misconduct is a man I want to see forced out of office.
To my mind, he's worse than the sentry who falls asleep. The sleeping sentry harms his community unwittingly, The "good" man who looks evil in the eye and does nothing is fully conscious of his dereliction.
Watergate taught us howdamaging nonfeasance can be. Is there need to relearn that lesson so soon?