Several people will be reading our newspaper with special interest in the days ahead.
They are people who have been mentioned in recent news stories. This Sunday's editions alone brought to light two matters that will receive continuing attention: the allegation that the government was bilked out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by officials of P.I. Properties Inc.; and the allegation that, in Prince George's County, Deputy State's Attorney Joseph C. Sauerwein was involved in two hit-and-run accidents after several hours of drinking -- and was not charged.
Neither is the kind of story that obligingly "blows over in four or five days," as Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus thought his firing of the rattlesnake expert would. In matters of this kind, the initial allegation is only the beginning. If you don't believe me, ask Richard M. Nixon. He can tell you how persistent newsmen can be.
Mary Treadwell formed a non-profit organization to buy the Clifton Terrace apartment complex from HUD. Sunday's Washington Post alleged thatTreadwell and her associates drained off hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of operating revenue for their own enrichment. Had the money not been taken, it could have been used to make payments on the government's mortgage and to supply heat, electricity and sanitary services to tenants who lived in squalor because "there was no money" for providing services.
Our story said that P.I. Properties submitted falsified reports to HUD and that HUD auditors never caught on. This is a theme that runs through many news stories about government operations. The government is involved in so many activities that even dedicated auditors can't know what's going on everywhere. And some auditors, like some doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs and reporters, are not dedicated, alas! Taxpayers must therefore carry the burden of mismanagement and outright fraud, in addition to the heavy costs of legitimate governmental activities.
Sauerwein's boss, State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr., was not what you would call cooperative when he was asked about the Sauerwein case. He told us "I'm not going to have your trashy newspaper in my offices investigating the personal lives of my employees." Then he issued a stern order that nobody in "my" office was to talk to our reporters. With one stroke of his pen, Marshall transformed the public's servants into his personal vassals. Perhaps he, too, thinks it will all blow over in four or five days.
Fortunately, the press was here several hundred years before Marshall, Andrus, Nixon and their ilk arrived on the scene. And with God's help, a free press will be around to keep an eye on government and its officials long after all of us have passed on to our rewards and/or punishments.
As Mr. Nixon can attest, stonewalling can delay a day of reckoning but cannot prevent its eventual arrival. In the end, the only thing stonewalling accomplishes is to convey to the public a strong sense of who the malefactors are and the extent of their "public be damned" attitudes. POSTSCRIPT
Conservation groups and congressmen expressed mounting interest in the government scientist who was fired for respectfully suggesting to Andrus' favorite French restaurant that it stop serving Pennsylvania rattlesnakes. Instead of "blowing over in four or five days," the incident escalated to the point that Andrus had to rehire the scientist.
If Andrus were a man of good judgement, he would have gotten the message quickly and put the scientist back on Interior's payroll at once.
But it must also be noted that if Nixon had been a man of good judgment, he would have come clean on the Watergate bread-in instead of trying to orchestrate a stonewalling conspiracy of silence. Just because a man has risen to high office is no guarantee that his judgment is sound.
Meanwhile, this might be an appropriate moment to acknowledge our debt to staff writers Lewis M. Simmons and Ron Shaffer, who dug out the documentary evidence for their story on P. I. Properties; to Benjamin Weiser and Jackson Diehl, who brought to light Sauerwein's drinking and driving; to Mike Sager, who has been helping the government compile an inventory of its "surplus" furniture both before and after it is buried in dumps; and to the thousands of other men and women in journalism who have helped make democracy work by keeping an eye on its malfunctions.
A hundred years from now, new miscreants in and out of government will be damning the press and making life difficult for reporters. But so long as the people of this nation understand the vital role a free press plays, the Republic will stand.