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More trash than tips likely on fraud hot line


BY OPENING a telephone hot line to report "waste, fraud and abuse," Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens hopes to improve the management of government.

I have no problem with county employees reporting their suspicions about wrongdoing. Who better would know if a fellow employee is stealing equipment, office supplies or money from the county till, or throwing a contract to an in-law?

My concern is that by guaranteeing anonymity to the callers, the county investigators may be overwhelmed with useless information rather than useful tips on corruption.

Been there, done that

I can speak from painful experience.

In my 25 years in journalism, I have dealt with numerous anonymous tipsters offering "real dirt" that turned out to be worthless. I wasted many valuable hours exploring tips in hopes they would turn into publishable material.

Most of the time, these tipsters wanted to use me and the newspaper to undermine a business rival, get even with someone who had crossed them or just create mischief.

I could not afford to ignore their tips. Any one of them might have been legitimate, leading to stories that would be splashed across the front page, lead to criminal investigations, maybe land wrongdoers in jail.

As reporters, we live for these kinds of stories. Tipsters know this. They also knew that they could feed me unreliable information and never have to account for it, as long as they could remain anonymous.

Paybacks and accusations

I fear that the county hot line will be full of tips that are nothing more than paybacks and or third-hand accusations. Instead of hunting down fraud and waste, investigators will spend a great deal of time chasing down bad information.

There is a way around this problem: Require those calling the hot line to identify themselves. The best information I ever got for articles came from sources I could identify.

Many of them originally were anonymous. When they first called, they would offer up information but refused to identify themselves.

They didn't know or trust me. They obviously wanted to test my reliability about keeping confidences, as well as my ability to further investigate the charges they made.

In a number of instances, I asked these people to call me back after I had a chance to make some preliminary checks.

A second phone call

If their tips turned out to have substance, I would usually ask them for more information in a second phone call. I also would press them to meet me face-to-face or give me a phone number where I could reach them.

About 80 percent of the time, these sources would meet with me or give me a phone number.

I often told people who insisted on anonymity that I could not spend a great deal of time chasing down their tips. Sources that felt strongly about their information usually relented and identified themselves. Those that didn't, I usually never heard from again.

Although I know the identity of my sources, I don't share them.

S&L; thicket

My editors still don't know the identity of a well-placed source who in 1985 guided me through the thickets of Maryland's savings and loan industry.

Without his help, I would not have been able to uncover half the wrongdoing that occurred at failed S&Ls;, such as Old Court, Merritt and Presidential.

Anne Arundel County could easily follow the same practice. Ask callers on the hot line to identify themselves but keep their identities known only to a few investigators.

Police have long-established systems of identifying their informants but keeping their names confidential. A similar system could be developed for the hot line.

In addition, Ms. Owens and the County Council should pass legislation that protects internal whistle-blowers from retribution.

The county should create a work environment where people can openly suggest or criticize county operations and not have to call a confidential hotline in the dead of night. No employee should fear that he or she might not be promoted or even lose a job because of pointing out wasteful practices or exposing fraud.

If the goal is to improve county management, creating a hot line is only a partial solution.

Owens' challenge

Ms. Owens has to create a work environment in all county departments where subordinates are encouraged to make suggestions, unclog bottlenecks and level criticisms without fear of retribution.

Most people in county government want to do their jobs well. When impediments arise, they should be able to bring them to the attention of co-workers and superiors and not have to call an anonymous hot line.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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