If newspaper editors feel they have a right to know who a presidential candidate has frolicked with since puberty -- never mind that the activity was financed with private funds -- it would seem reasonable to expect those editors to keep readers fully informed about more prosaic matters like misuse of taxpayer dollars.
The Post carried a story May 29 about an assistant secretary of education who paid the government $12,022 as part of an agreement with the prosecutor's office in connection with charges that an employee had been overpaid $15,000. That left Uncle Sam still holding the bag for $3,000. So the employee who got $15,000 kicked in with $1,000 and her immediate supervisor, the remaining $2,000.
The U.S. attorney to whom the case had been referred by the inspector general said the case was closed "with full restitution to the United States without the expensive civil suit." Education Secretary William Bennett's spokesman said the assistant secretary still had his "full and complete confidence."
But the reader doesn't know what its all about. The story was pried loose But the reader isn't told what it is all about. The story was pried loose by a Post reporter on an outside tip. What made it news is that the assistant secretary of education is the wife of the distinguished writer and political analyst, syndicated columnist George Will. It is fair and relevant to state this relationship, as the story did, because Mr. Will wrote an amusing column at the time of her appointment, reassuring his readers that Madeleine Will was well qualified for the presidential appointment and that the appointment was not a spinoff of his close relationship with Mr. and Mrs. Reagan. No responsible person would question that.
But the story in The Post raised more questions than it answered. First of all, what happened? Overpayments in government occur every day, and there are established procedures to ensure that Uncle Sam gets his money back. Generally, the matter isn't referred to the Justice Department unless hanky-panky is suspected. The IRS handles overpayments with a simplicity -- if not a delicacy -- that is breathtaking. Comes a letter telling you to fork it over, plus interest, and that's that.
But in the higher altitudes of the Department of Education, we suddenly have an inspector general determining that someone has been paid a salary without working for it. The I.G. turns the findings over to the prosecutor's office. The beneficiary of the largesse gets hit for $1,000, but her boss, the assistant secretary, who presumably is innocent of any wrongdoing, writes a personal check for the lion's share of the illicit payments.
What The Post should tell its readers is what happened, and if it doesn't know, which I assume is the case, demand a few answers. It owes this to the reader, but it also owes this to Assistant Secretary Will.
Is Mrs. Will being leaned on by the bureaucracy because she's the wife of a prominent columnist? Or is she being protected because of this relationship? It is quite possible neither is the case. Then why all the mystery? I doubt whether there's a single case on record of a sub-cabinet official reimbursing the government for overpayment to an employee or contractor, even though he or she may have initialled a piece of paper that started the process.
Officials are at the mercy of staff who prepare the paper work. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird at the end of a long day would gaze at the pile of signature-hungry documents, which would require 24 hours of reading, take a quick drink and sign them all. He called it "5 o'clock roulette." His successor by one, James Schlesinger, solved the problem by rarely signing anything.
The Post has a responsibility, particularly because it broke the story, to follow it up. Too often, it fails to do so. I sometimes think that Post reporters lose interest in a story after prying it loose if it does not promise to produce a Pulitzer prize or at the very least bring down a government.
I particularly dislike making an issue of this for the very reason I am making it an issue -- a fellow columnist is involved, albeit indirectly. I'm new at this game, but I understand there's a gentlemen's agreement that one columnist doesn't do this to a colleague. I'm no gentlemen. But I used to be a newspaperman, and I think the reader has a right to know the truth as well as the facts.