Firmness against fraud

What may be most disturbing about the new General Accounting Office report on fraud that was sent to Congress this week is not the fact that so many persons seem to be involved, nor even just the huge dollar amounts that are in effect ripped off from Washington. What is particularly curious is that, despite ostensible countermeasures taken by successive administrations, fraud against the federal government seems to go on unabated.

To minimize such defrauding of the federal appartus on the grounds that such practices occur in private businesses and throughout the economy anyway, or that many persons will always be inclined to such misdeeds, is not to come to grips with a problem that is reckoned to be costing taxpayers billions of dollars annually. Moreover, fraud invites criticisms about the very substance of federal transfer programs themselves and, ultimately, the humanitarian government policies they symbolize. Such criticisms lead to individual campaigns against "cheaters," such as that now underway in the food stamp program by Sen. Jesse Helms, who has been a consistent critic of food stamps.

The Reagan administration, which has al ready held a "waste and fraud week," is seeking new criminal and civil actions against persons suspected of defrauding the government. At the same time the administration has appointed a number of new inspectors general in federal agencies. The administration must be unyielding in its efforts to check the thefts, false statements, irregularities, and destruction of property that make up over 90 percent of fraud reported by the GAO.

Ironically, according to the new GAO report, less than 12 percent of all persons accused of defrauding the government are ever prosecuted. Certainly, just prosecuting persons for the sake of sending them to prison is not a lasting solution. Prisons are crowded enough. Prosecution need not by itself entail a jail term, since there are such alternatives as work-release programs. But what the federal government cannot -- and must not -- tolerate is a public perception that (a) the government is cracking down on street criminals but is conveniently lenient toward persons who cheat it; adn (c), thay, yes, it can actually "pay" to "beat the system."

So far as the prosecutions that are actually undertaken, the Justice Department is successful in about 95 percent of the cases. Administrative actions -- such as firings, lossrecovery plans, ets. -- are used in about 69 percent of federal fraud cases.

In seeking new inspectors general earlier this year, the White House's then press secretary, James Brady, said the administration was looking for persons who were "meaner than junk-yard dogs." Liberal supporters of federal assistance programs should actually find reassurance in such a search, for it seems clear that continued public support for costly federal programs will be in part determined by the honesty and efficiency with which the programs are managed. Federal agencies must scrupulously tighten their internal auditing controls, white making department heads more responsible for what transpires in their divisions. Computers should cross-check possible cheating. Such measures should not be looked upon as repressive. Rather, what is at issue is the very administration of government itself, which -- while compassionate toward those in genuine need of assistance -- holds no sympathy whatsoever for graft. Graft, it need hardly be added, paid for by federal taxpayers.

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