Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

When to Step Forward

Whitecaps' post titled FBI Confidential Human Source Guidelines on September 19, 2007, revealed the internal administrative controls it exercises and the protections the FBI offers to confidential human sources.

That's all well and good if you're an FBI special agent. But what if you're the prospective confidential human source?

For example, what if you're a fundamentally honest city, county, or state employee, maybe a department head, with information about public corruption inside your own agency or another one? Maybe you're getting close to retirement age. You're too old to be changing jobs, because yes, age discrimination does exist. Maybe you've looked at what your fellow department managers have done. You've seen the financial and career rewards they've been given even while engaging in illegal misconduct. You know what they've done is illegal, yet they're still on the job, and no one seems to be paying any attention. Why should you step forward, stick your neck out, blow the whistle, jeopardize your retirement, and subject yourself to public ridicule in the media?

There are two reasons.

First, the ethical reason. You are honest, and they are not. You listen to your conscience; they do not. They may rationalize illegal behavior by saying the positive results for the community override the law. Look at how much better off we all are (or at least appear to be) because we "visionary" public officials and business leaders chose to disregard the laws. Look at all the big, shiny new buildings and nice parks. We wouldn't have them if we had obeyed the law. That's what they'll say. They did it for the good of the community.

The flaw in their logic, however, is that what they are doing is still illegal and subject to criminal prosecution. That the elected county prosecuting attorney is unwilling to prosecute does not and cannot make their acts legal. Their apparently benevolent motives for illegal conduct may mitigate their sentence if they are tried and convicted, but benevolent motives do not justify illegal conduct. And you should not believe for one moment that corrupt public officials with "benevolent motives" do not profit personally. Profit comes in many forms. Regardless, if they are found out, they will be disgraced even if they're not prosecuted. Why? Because the vast majority of people in the community want honest public officials whom they can trust. They do not want public officials who will betray their trust and confidence.

Second, the practical reason for your stepping forward. You are fundamentally honest, one of the good guys caught up in a mess not of your own creation. Corrupt public officials conspiring with dishonest business people are the bad guys. The bad guys know that you are honest, that you would prefer to not be involved in criminal behavior. They do not trust you. They never will trust you. Your honesty, integrity, and insider knowledge will always remain a very real threat to their criminal enterprise.

Their concern is that someday you will reveal the details of their criminal misconduct. They will try to co-opt you to become one of them, to turn you into a criminal co-conspirator. They will use a carrot if that will work and a stick if it won't. The carrot may be public acclaim and financial rewards. The stick may be your being demoted or fired from your job. In extreme cases, the stick may also be physical intimidation or violence to you, your family, or others meaningful to you.

So when do you step forward? Do it now. If you've been ensnared involuntarily in public corruption, you gain nothing by waiting. Confidential human sources are validated by the agency to whom they go to seek help. One of the steps in validating a source is to examine the source's motivation to become a confidential human source. The longer you wait between the criminal actions and your reporting of them, the more an investigator wonders, "Why did s/he wait so long?" It's never too late, but sooner rather than later is the guiding rule.

Consider this possibility: Suppose you have put off coming forward and doing the right thing. You decide to wait, but before you can come forward, you're fired. You've just added another credibility barrier you must overcome. Now that you've been fired, your allegations of misconduct by superiors begin to sound more like sour grapes or retaliation against them than genuine concern for the public well-being. Bluntly, as an insider you are far more credible and valuable than you would be as a terminated outsider.

It is never easy for even an honest public employee to come forward and provide insider information about the criminal conduct of fellow workers and superiors. There is risk involved, because the criminal justice system is far from perfect. A prospective confidential human source may believe he can trust city, county, or state law enforcement. He may believe he can trust the county prosecuting attorney. In both cases, he may be wrong. If they betray him, he is alone and out in the cold.

Generally a public employee with insider information about public corruption will be better off going to a federal law enforcement agency such as the FBI or IRS Criminal Investigation. The federal agencies will be less influenced by local political machinations and personalities. Public corruption investigations must be done quietly and carefully. They will proceed methodically. Federal agencies do not want their investigations to be used as a bludgeon for some local political agenda. But it is the federal agencies who have the resources to proceed with public corruption investigations and prosecutions. The federal agencies are in a better position to help and protect a confidential human source who wants to step forward and do the right thing for his community.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too long. I don't get it.

12:26 PM, September 28, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great posting Bill! My question is, do you think the Feds will ever investigate what went on in the failed Jet Court Program?

1:39 PM, September 28, 2007  
Blogger Bill McCrory said...

Anonymous at 12:26 PM,

Sorry. But thanks for struggling through it. The very short version is that the only way an honest but ensnared employee can hope to free himself is to get out and get protection as quickly as possible.

7:00 PM, September 28, 2007  
Blogger Bill McCrory said...

Anonymous at 1:39 PM,

Thank you. Judging from the article headlined FBI faces deep cuts in programs to fight crimes in Friday's Seattle P-I, it seems less likely. While the FBI cutbacks are good news for some of our less than honest local officials, they're bad news for us who feel like there's nowhere else to turn.

7:05 PM, September 28, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Locally too many have seen the status-quo for too long to risk blowing the whistle. It is a solidly entrenched good old persons club. It is so solidly entrenched that infractions are practically flaunted. Perhaps if the up coming election demonstrates otherwise some key underlings might get enough confidence to break rank and file.

8:51 AM, September 29, 2007  
Blogger Bill McCrory said...

Anonymous at 8:51 AM,

You are correct about an entrenched elite. It is they who have elevated unethical and sometimes illegal conduct to the level of acceptability in Coeur d'Alene city government and yes, even in Idaho state government.

I sympathize with honest employees, because they know that if they come forward and nothing changes, they will be fired, demoted, or shunted aside with no opportunity for advancement. But as sympathetic as I might be to their individual plights, the fact is their own job security is no less at risk simply because they remain quiet. The dishonest employees do know who the honest ones are. Even if the honest employees agree to keep their mouths shut, the dishonest ones can never be sure that won't change. Eventually the honest ones will either be removed or otherwise neutralized or they will escape to another location where their superiors are honest and where they can have rewarding, satisfying careers. In the meantime, the decay in Coeur d'Alene contines.

The upcoming election may offer some hope to honest employees if Hassell and Edinger are removed and if an honest, courageous person is elected to fill the seat vacated by Dixie Reid. Watch and see who the City backs for Reid's vacant seat. Honest city employees will get no relief if the City's choice is elected.

11:55 AM, September 29, 2007  

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