We have a little trouble understanding the terminus of City Hall’s inquiry into possible misconduct by former Transit Superintendent Betty Burriss. The investigative report, obtained through an open-records request by State Journal reporter Ryan Quinn, pretty clearly accuses the 20-year employee of stealing city property and using her official credit card for personal purchases. And yet, it calls for no criminal charges.
“This should be the end of this,” said interim City Manager Walter Wilhoite, who also serves as police chief. Although Burriss denied wrongdoing, she did return the items missing from her department and forfeited more than $5,000 in accrued leave. (Government workers accumulate unused rights to sick and other leave over their careers.)
We wonder if Chief Wilhoite would agree to such lenient terms for the common criminals his officers investigate and arrest every day. Who would not, presented with evidence of illegal behavior, be willing to return the loot and let bygones be bygones, especially if the victim is willing? Pennsylvania State University and the Catholic Church managed for years to keep probes of child sex abuse “in house” rather than subject themselves to the indignity of court proceedings. No public institution likes to have its dirty linen aired in public.
Even though the pilfering of municipal property does not rise to the magnitude of child molestation, city leaders should treat it just as seriously as the theft of a car stereo.
Investigators routinely looking into home and business burglaries would be fortunate to find evidence as damning as they turned up in this affair. After employees tipped off police that Burriss may have abused her authority as transit superintendent, a review of the department’s surveillance video showed a pickup truck, believed to be Burriss’ own, pulling away with a loaded trailer. A transit employee handled the loading, under her orders, and won’t face charges.
Police subsequently visited Burriss’ home on Mount Zion Road and asked about the missing property. The investigative report says she initially denied possession of furniture from the Transit Department’s training/break area. Items taken, according to the report, were a glass table, four chairs, a loveseat, a recliner, a utility trailer and generator. Wilhoite said she also took a 42-inch flat-screen TV belonging to the city, which had been declared surplus. Her husband later took it to the police station.
Police decided they should look into purchases the superintendent made on her city credit card in 2011-2012. Some that raised questions included gift wrap, a Yankee Candle item, women’s clothing, a child’s cup, baby snacks, sunglasses, shoes and cookies.
Wilhoite said the transit superintendent’s misappropriation of public property appeared to deviate from 20 years of loyal service. He called it a mistake in judgment.
How many theft suspects might offer the same defense – that bad choices led them to take someone else’s valuables? How many would gladly return what they took in exchange for maintaining a clean record and avoiding the stigma of going to court as a criminal defendant? How many have had to face the music, anyway?
If anything, public servants should be held to a higher standard than the “usual suspects” of criminal investigations. Unless investigators came to the conclusion they had too little evidence to win a conviction, they should have handled this matter like any crime and let the justice system reach its own conclusions. It’s the right thing to do.