- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Government employees who sell their workplace-issued Metrocheks on the Internet are not simply abusing some much-abused rules. They are eroding taxpayer trust. Even a little fraud is fraud.

This week, the Government Accountability Office gave a snapshot of the rampant and fraudulent selling of Metrocheks — discounted mass-transit cards — on the Web sites eBay and Craigslist. Hundreds and probably thousands of federal workers are then pocketing the money. The GAO hasn’t studied the full extent of the problem, but the cases it examined suggest fraud of “$17 million and likely more.” In the grand scheme of the federal budget, that’s a rounding error. The same would be true of several times that amount. But that’s not the point. The abuse of trust is. We trust federal workers with all manner of sensitive national business. They’re not supposed to be corrupt, even in the slightest, even a small percentage of them.

Read the fine print on the reverse of each Metrochek. It is unmistakable. “The use, sale or exchange of Metrocheks to any other person makes the Metrochek invalid, and is therefore illegal and subjects the person to arrest and/or prosecution.”

An idle threat is what most of these profiteers must consider that warning (if they bothered to read it). They would be correct, at least insofar as the chances of getting in trouble. Just about everyone who sells these Metrocheks gets away with it. Even late Tuesday, the day the GAO released its report, we spotted Metrocheks for sale on Washington’s Craigslist page well below face value, with a caveat: “Cash only.” No doubt some comfortable federal souls must now be concluding that a few unlucky sellers will be caught and the matter will end there. There need not even be a temporary interruption of pocket money, just business as usual.

New safeguards can and should be implemented after this week’s revelations. Since this is one of those classic small-bore problems that even the most inept government agency has no excuse for ignoring, we’re actually quite optimistic that safeguards will be enacted.

But then, that’s not our point. Trust is what’s required. This week that trust is shown to be violated. No amount of new safeguards will be able to prevent all fraud. Hiring honest people is what prevents fraud. It’s what prevents the type of small but shabby activities which, slowly and surely, erode public trust in the system. Prosecution is a crime-prevention tool, too.

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