A continuing investigation of the General Services Administration has turned up evidence of fraud, kickbacks and crooked contracts.
Even worse, there have been allegations that when complainants reported the existence of such activities they were ignored by GSA officials until the story leaked out to the public.
I offered the opinion that the most serious of the alleged crimes was that of nonfeasance: the failure of responsible officials to begin a vigorous in investigation the moment they heard charges that something was amiss.
"Watergate taught us how damaging nonfeasance can be," I wrote. "Is there need to relearn that lesson so soon?"
I said that any official who failed to snap to attention when his agency was charged with wrongdoing ought to be driven from public service.
It pleased me that many of you wrote to say you are in complete agreement with the opinions I expressed. But it troubled me to hear from government workers who know of fraud in their own offices but are afraid to open their mouths.
The recurring theme in their letters was: Everybody hates a whistle-blower. If you know what's good for you, you keep your mouth shut. Don't rock the boat. Don't make waves. Don't blow the whistle, never, on anybody, regardless of how raw his particular brand of ripoff is.
One man put it this way: "If yo keep it inside the family by going to the right people and putting the proposition to them in the right way, they may cut you in on the take. Or they may get you out of their hair by having you transferred to the boonies, but at least you'll still have your paycheck. However, if you go outside the family and 'go public' with your complaint, you have just plain had it. They will close ranks, circle the wagons, and do whatever is necessary to discredit you, disgrace you, and not only force you out of the government but to the edge of suicide."
An out-of-town GSA employe who wanted to remain anonymous but inadvertently gave this inept detective a positive clue to her identity wrote:
"Your comments sound fine, in theory, but I refer you to Peter Cowen's news story in your paper datelined Boston, Nov. 18, 1976. The story says that Robert F. Sullivan, age 41, a GSA investigator whose job it was to track down criminal conduct inside the agency, was fired by GSA when he found criminal conduct involving millions of dollars and made his findings public. GSA told Sullivan that his firing would 'promote efficiency of the service.' Sullivan, a widower with two children to support, was the second GSA employe to be fired by the Boston office for letting the public know about frauds he had uncovered."
There is no question about it. The whistle-blower leads a lonely and risky life. People who profit from crime, or would be harmed by public disclosure of it, often go to great lengths to ignore, neutralize discredit, attack, malign and tell outrageous lies about anybody with guts enough to tell the public the truth about what goes on behind their closed doors.
This is why I ranked nonfeasance a more dangerous crime than the criminal activities it so often attempts to hide from public view.
When there's money to be made in a free enterprise system, it is normal for some people to try to make it by working honestly to cater to a public need, and it is normal for other people to try to make it - or steal it - by using dishonest methods. Our system can cope with occasional dishonesty only if we can depend upon our public officials to cooperate with honest men and oppose the dishonest. Any failure of public officials to attack dishonesty exposes the entire system to disintegration. Inaction is the enemy of effective government.
Traditionally, the fellow who steals a loaf of bread goes to jail while the fellow who steals millions, obstructs justice, or undermines our very system of government gets a slap on the wrist.
This, I think, is the greatest crime of all.
Our jails are filled with ignorant louts who grew up in an environment in which crime was considered essential to survival. The educated man who knew right from wrong and knowingly chose to do wrong hires a good lawyer and escapes with minimal punishment. And when the culprit is himself a lawyer, he hires an even better lawyer, plus a doctor who is willing to swear the poor fellow is too sick to stand trial.
This is not, alas, a system designed to encourage people to blow the whistle on government waste and fraud.