Editorial: Thieves in the city government


One might say the City of Alexandria has bad luck when it comes to some of their employees’ sticky fingers, but that would be inaccurate. Luck has nothing to do with it. A culture of lax hiring processes and a dependence on consultants has everything to do with it.

In the latest chapter of City Hall’s embezzlement woes, a top city employee pleaded guilty to pilfering $30,000 from the taxpayers of Buffalo, N.Y. Timothy Wanamaker apparently could not be trusted to keep a city-issued credit card in his wallet when it came to personal expenses. Yet the City of Alexandria trusted him in a senior position of its general services department.

Embezzlement of taxpayer money has increased over the past three years. Earlier this summer, two city employees were charged with the crime within four days of one another; in 2010 a DASH Bus worker admitted to skimming about $30,000 off the top of the Alexandria Transit Shop; and in 2009, a city worker entrusted to collect change from parking meters was caught pilfering $170,000.

There is a culture of negligence when hiring city employees. Mr. Wanamaker stole money from Buffalo residents before he came to work for Alexandria taxpayers, and worked here for more than a year before being placed on administrative leave Wednesday.

This all comes just a few months after the acting city manager vowed to revisit internal policies to prevent financial fraud. The best way to protect against embezzlement is never to hire a sketchy employee in the first place — that’s what background checks are for. Sure, unless a person has been convicted of a crime, it may not show up. But according to the Buffalo News, Mr. Wanamaker had a certain reputation, which begs the question, did Alexandria City Hall even check references?

No. City Hall hired a consultant to do it for them. In a statement to the press, the city was quick to point out Mr. Wanamaker’s clean slate according to Waters Consulting. But what accountability do consultants have to hire someone whose salary comes directly from Alexandria taxpayers?

The city’s finances are a mess. Rogue members of the school district began transferring money around like it was their own bank account (see story, page 6), and City Hall is owed millions of dollars in delinquent taxes. Yet an auditor recently referred to Alexandria’s financial practices as “the gold standard.” It’s laughable.

The verdict is out on whether Mr. Wanamaker stole money from city coffers, but the threat obviously is there. Perhaps the city should stop refining its policies on guarding against financial fraud and start using common sense in its hiring practices. Solve the problem before it’s a problem — not after taxpayer money goes missing.