Sunday, February 24, 2002

E-mails detail Indiana Guard 'ghosts'

By Dave Moniz and Jim Drinkard, USA TODAY

'Ghost soldiers' inflate Guard numbers
Misconduct marks Guard command

WASHINGTON — Evidence continues to grow that National Guard units across the country are undermanned and have faked their troop level reports to Washington for years in order to protect their flow of federal money and to hide their inability to retain troops.

Surprise surprise, bureaucrats turn out to be crooks when they think no one is watching. Even military officers are just ordinary crooks in times of peace.

I’m from Chicago, so I’ve thought a lot about the kind of people who create ghost payrolls, and more about the kind who tolerate it. Creating ghost payrolls is simple enough to understand; the perpetrators get more money that they don’t have to share with real employees.

What’s harder to understand is the people who know about these scams but don’t benefit and don’t mind. As a former Chicagoan, I’ve been in that situation. What is it about otherwise normal people who have their tax money taken from them and stolen, and who just don’t care?

My thought: I think that the members of the general public who tolerate corruption somehow convince themselves that they are in on the gag. For me, this is most clear in Chicago, IL. Chicago was home to a crooked House Ways and Means Chairman named Dan Rostenkowski who was eventually convicted of (among other things) defrauding the federal government (and thus the Chicago taxpayers) of millions of dollars. In Chicago, Mr. Rostenkowski became a hero after coming home from his time in the federal prison. Somehow, people convinced themselves that Mr. Rostenkowski was their friend after it came to light that he was stealing their money for himself. This was even true among people who didn't gain from Mr. Rostenkowski's activities. Bizzare. It was part gross misunderstanding of economics (people didn't realize that the pork Mr. R. brought home to them was something that they paid for in higher taxes and higher prices) and mass insanity (the people who did get the pork were a large enough "rah-rah" section that even people who gained nothing from Mr. R. thought he must have been a good guy. After all, thousands of hoodlums can't be wrong.)

As shown by this story, however, the military seems to have an “off” switch for this type of behavior. When the nation is at war, military corruption suddenly seems a lot less acceptable. In fact, it’s worth noting that the ghost troop scheme, though probably flourishing for decades, became newsworthy only when the nation went to war (though an undeclared war). I don’t think that civilian government scams ever gain the kind of perceived importance that gives enough urgency to make a national story about even low level corruption.

So is the military less corrupt than civilians? Probably not, but the tolerance for military corruption is probably temporarily depressed by the war. At least I hope so.

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