Friday, September 2, 2016

On the blurring of fiscal lines and the appearances of scandal

Unlike news, and particularly political, media, I do not have to file a Freedom of Information Act to get access to the materials for this post because I have first-hand knowledge of the events and individuals. I will, however, protect my sources and thus not reveal the identities of the individuals and organizations I write about.

This story is about employees of an academic department in a public university, how they did their work, how they got paid and by whom. The main figures are the chair of the department, R, and an administrative assistant, K. During the time covered by this report, R was an officer in a regional professional organization and the principal investigator on an educational grant from a federal agency. Part of R's work was for the academic department, part for the educational grant, and part for the professional organization. R received a small stipend, also administered through the university, from the professional organization. K was hired by the university and received part of her pay from the professional organization and part of her pay from the educational grant. Both R and K worked in a university office using university information technology hardware and software. At any given moment during any given day it would have been difficult for an outside observer to determine which hats were being worn by R and K. Because all these activities were deemed "professional", the university allowed and encouraged this arrangement, noting that these arrangements are common in universities.

Hypothetically, suppose that the local newspaper got wind of this arrangement and requested documentation from the university's financial and personnel offices. They then proceeded to write and publish the story which included these (paraphrased) points and conclusions.

This investigation, which is based on records obtained from the university does not reveal anything illegal. But it does offer fresh evidence of how the university blurred the line between the various sources of support and work performed by R and K.

Taxpayer cash was used to buy IT equipment housed at the university.

Taxpayer-funded university resources were used to support the non-university activities (professional organization and federal grant).

A university spokesperson said R's use of university resources is entirely consistent with the mission of the university and common practices.

Generally, the spokesperson explained that R “wears several hats — among them being grant principal investigator and professional organization officer. Her staffing reflects those roles.”

The spokesperson added “there is no legal prohibition that would preclude R's assistant from receiving compensation from other sources or doing personal work for the professional groups. We are unaware of any legal prohibition that would preclude these activities.”

The spokesperson wouldn’t discuss specific employees, or their sources of income, explaining “the university does not discuss personnel matters.”

Despite the lack of any evidence of illegal activities, the newspaper proceeded to document in excruciating detail the financial arrangements mentioned above, dollar by dollar.

The paper concluded by "highlighting the confusion caused by the overlapping spheres" in the work and workplace of R and K.

The paper ran the story with the headline "R and K used tax dollars to subsidize professional organization."

The paraphrasing in the indented material above follows more or less closely the investigation and reporting of the Clinton's finances done by Politico in Bill Clinton aides used tax dollars to subsidize foundation, private email support. Program for ex-presidents paid salaries and benefits to Clinton aides at the center of controversies. "Despite the lack of any evidence of illegal activities, Politicoproceeded to document in excruciating detail ..."

In Scriber's view, the principal difference between my story and the Politico investigation is the difference between the symbols "R" and "Clinton." The media has gotten wired into digging up dirt on the Clintons even when there is no real dirt to dig.

h/t Linda Laird for the Politico reference. As usual, Scriber is solely responsible for the views expressed in this post.

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