Alan Chartock | I, Publius: A lot of questions need to be answered in alleged theft


GREAT BARRINGTON — So, why do people steal? One of the reasons why most of us don't steal is that our mothers and fathers and religious institutions taught us that stealing is wrong. Sooner or later, you are likely to get caught. For those who do steal, the ending is often heart-wrenching.

Some not-for-profits have an auditing team in place. They work hard to close any potential holes in their fiscal systems. They do that so that no one person has the ability to pilfer money. One of the things that our excellent new Great Barrington town manager, Mark Pruhenski, has made clear is that the town will put procedures in place so that the recent alleged theft by Deborah Ball that was discovered by our town auditors can't happen again.

I will resist the temptation to ask why this wasn't done earlier. I have been told that the town has new auditors.

There are times when people offer rationales for stealing. "They don't pay me enough for what I do," is one of those pathetic excuses for misbehavior. Another is, "But I really needed the money."

Obviously, the person who sits at the top of an organization is responsible for ensuring that no one can steal. I don't know about anyone else who runs a big company, but in my opinion, this is the kind of major responsibility that goes with the job.

The nice thing about a nonprofit is just that — "not for profit." When, for example, you are running a big business where there is plenty of opportunity for hanky-panky, things can get much messier.

When someone is in charge of collecting or even spending town dollars, it should be clear that they need to be watched, no matter who they are. When stealing has been occurring over a number of years, someone hasn't been doing their job. It is the job of the Select Board to oversee the town manager and staff. When someone steals, it can cast aspersions on all other employees.

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Compared to other nearby towns, Great Barrington's taxpayers are asked to pony up real money. I have never minded that, although I certainly can think of some ways to save some money. When someone steals from the town, it really hurts. The town will tell you that we are bonded so that any money that was stolen will be replaced by our insurers, but we are paying good money to be bonded.

Anyone who has ever filed an insurance claim knows that sometimes your insurance premium goes up as a result. Put another way, you pay for insurance, but when you actually file a claim, you may well be asked to pay more. That just ain't right.

Another aspect of the problem is size. When an organization grows, there may actually be more opportunities to steal.

It is never a good idea to have a lot of cash on hand. That's when things can really get dangerous. In the case of the now-arraigned Great Barrington assistant tax collector, this newspaper reported, "Investigators allege she essentially ran a 'Ponzi scheme' by embezzling real estate and excise taxes paid to the town in cash, and then trying to cover up those losses by applying portions of check payments made by other taxpayers."

So, we finish as we began. How could it be that the accused (but not convicted) tax collector did not recognize that the auditors would catch her? On the other hand, if she is guilty of stealing town funds, how could she have gotten away with it for so long? I know that many organizations like mine are audited every year.

As for me, I actually feel sorry for Deborah Ball. When someone so important in town government allegedly falls into this kind of disgrace, anyone should be able to see what a real tragedy it is.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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