New Castle News

Columns

January 9, 2012

Mitchel Olszak: Feds seek help exposing school corruption

NEW CASTLE — When asked why he robbed banks, Willie “The Actor” Sutton had a now-famous response:

“That’s where the money is.”

The same explanation could be given for a new initiative by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in western Pennsylvania.

Last week, U.S. Attorney David Hickton announced the establishment of a hotline, designed to take tips related to corruption in public schools. People with information can call the hotline at (412) 894-7515.

This announcement might seem to be a bit strange on the surface. When most people think of schools, such things as classrooms, books, honor rolls, sporting events, proms and plays come to mind, not rampant criminal activity.

But take a look at your property tax statements. The amount contributed to your local school district is far higher than the funds given to county government or your municipality. Plus, school districts receive half of wage taxes as well as contributions from state and federal governments.

In short, a lot of money passes through the halls of public schools. And whenever the cash flows, there will be people looking for a piece of the action.

Public corruption tends to be all about the abuse of taxpayer funds. This could involve such matters as pocketing tax dollars or somehow skimming from a program. Or it could be tied to kickbacks for directing certain work or projects toward a particular company or individual.

Sadly, there are people willing to take advantage of taxpayer generosity for personal gain.

And that’s what Hickton is seeking through this hotline. The goal is to elicit tips from sources who might have details about illegal activity. Armed with basic information, the feds possess the tools to dig deeper and follow the money.

Corruption within public schools damages education in two ways. First, it siphons money from the worthy goal of aiding students. Second, its existence weakens citizens’ support for education. People wind up wondering if their money is being employed for a useful purpose or just lining someone’s pockets.

That’s especially true when claims of corruption work their way into the public’s psyche without resolution. Here at the New Castle News, we often hear assorted claims of wrongdoing related to school districts. These range from abuse (or neglect) of power to the pilfering of funds in some fashion.

Often, the stories we hear are third, fourth or fifth hand, more rumor than material fact. Such allegations are virtually impossible to prove, at least for newspapers without subpoena power. But perhaps federal investigators — if they’re pointed in the right direction — will have the ability to sort things out.

In a way, Hickton is throwing down the gauntlet in regard to people who say there is corruption in local school systems. He’s telling them to put up or shut up. Those who have real information should direct it toward the hotline.

As for people who might dismiss the federal hotline as nothing more than show, consider this: The Pittsburgh office of the U.S. Attorney successfully prosecuted key public figure in the Affordable Housing of Lawrence County scandal. And it has assisted with investigations into drug-related crime here.

If there’s something amiss in local school systems, here’s an opportunity to clear the air.

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