Keeping the public faith

During my misspent youth at the U.S. Department of Justice, there was a fashion for law enforcement “stings.” Someone in the United States Marshals Service came up with the clever idea of (if memory serves) sending letters purporting to come from the New York Giants, offering free tickets to Giants games, to the last known addresses of a bunch of fugitives from justice, and then arresting the suckers when they showed up. Worked like a charm, and everyone (save the fugitives) had a good laugh at their expense.

Then someone else had what seemed at first blush to be a similar idea: Send letters on Immigration and Naturalization Service letterhead, offering a lottery for Green Cards, to people who had overstayed their visas and had deportation orders pending. Again, the idea was to arrest the marks when they came in.

When this clever idea came to the Criminal Division’s Office of Enforcement Operations for approval, the veteran OEO Section Chief, the usually imperturbable Jerry Shur, completely blew his stack. “Absolutely not!” he roared. When a more junior attorney gingerly asked what was so objectionable about the idea, given the general approval of the “Giants tickets” sting, Jerry gave an unforgettable reply. “Because we’re the government of the United States of America, and our word is always good. Period.”

Shur’s point was that no serious damage was done if people learned to distrust a sports franchise offering something for nothing, but that if people learned to distrust official offers from Federal agencies the resulting harm would be irreparable. Once he’d made that case, no one had an answer, and the idea was allowed to die a peaceful death. I filed the Jerry Shur Principle under “Never forget.” It’s come in handy often since.

The latest case to which that principle applies comes with a twist. Recall that during the Iraq War, after the promised “crowds of Iraqis greeting us as liberators” failed to appear, the military had a tremendous problem meeting its recruiting and retention goals. As a result, DoD approved a very generous bonus program, with cash bonuses and student-loan forgiveness running into the tens of thousands of dollars for each recruit. Now it comes out that the California National Guard (under Gov. Schwartzengroper), which was having an especially tough time meeting its quotas, resorted to widespread cheating, offering bonuses that the target recruits weren’t actually entitled to, even under the new and more generous regs.

Years later, an audit by DoD discovered the overpayments. As a result, thousands of Californians who trusted the word of their National Guard recruiters – men and women wearing the uniform of the United States of America – are being dunned for repayment of the money they took in good faith to fight a war no one else wanted to fight.

The Master Sergeant who ran the program (and who might well have lost his job if he’d failed to meet unmeetable quotas) took a hard fall, doing 30 months in prison; three officers got off with probation. As usual, the folks who had the fancy titles and drew the big salaries, including the Guard commander and the Governor, managed to preserve their deniability.

It seems to me that if someone has to take a financial hit for the misconduct of the California National Guard, it ought to be the California National Guard, not the soldiers who were victims of official misconduct. Unless the LA Times story simply gets it wrong, there is no reason to think that the people who received the money were complicit in wrongdoing.

I understand that the officials at DoD, and the Assistant U.S. Attorneys who are pressing the legal claims, are just doing their jobs; it shouldn’t be in the discretion of individual officials to acquiesce what amounts to a theft of taxpayers’ money. And it’s possible that even the Secretary of Defense and the President lack the power to waive these claims.

But President Obama (or President Clinton) can, and should, propose to the Congress a bill for the relief of the victims; in justice, that should include giving back the $22 million that has been repaid so far. We’re the government of the United States of America, and our word is always good. Period.









Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

9 thoughts on “Keeping the public faith”

  1. An amusing story – but I don't get why, in the light of the moral logic invoked against the green card sting, that the NYG sting was acceptable. Unless the moral calculus was "it's OK for us to lie, but it is not OK for us to get caught lying." In which case it isn't really a moral stance, but pragmatic one, and dubious at that.

    Agree with you on the need for relief here. Soldiers in wartime should get evry last inch of the benefit of the doubt.

    1. You and I read the story differently. The implication I took away was that Shur disapproved even of the original sting, because it wasn't the Giants making the offer; it was the federal government, and it would be discredited when the deception became public, no matter what organization the letter purported to come from.

      And, ". . . that no serious damage was done if people learned to distrust a sports franchise . . ." is an assertion that the NY Giants might disagree with.

  2. The moral calculus is the same reasoning that justifies making it a crime to impersonate a police officer. If people impersonate police officers, that undermines trust in real police officers by making it harder to identify real police officers. It is (I believe) a crime to mail letters perporting to be from the INS, for much the same reason.

    As Mark Kleiman explained: “Shur’s point was that no serious damage was done if people learned to distrust a sports franchise offering something for nothing, but that if people learned to distrust official offers from Federal agencies making official offers the resulting harm would be irreparable.”

  3. Yeah, I think both were sleazy, but in the former instance, it was black people, and in the latter instance, it was Latino people. Don't you see the difference?

    You don't? Ummmmmm…….

    (Whatever point you infer here says a whole fuckava lot about you…..if you infer none, then that too speaks volumes……heh heh)

    1. I think both were sleazy, but Shur's point was more of an operational one. If you get a come-on from someone purporting to be a commercial organization, you might be scared it's law enforcement in disguise, but all that does is slightly reduce the value of commercial marketing — which the government doesn't care that much about. If you get a come-on from a government agency that turns out to be a bait-and-switch, then all contact with government agencies becomes suspect, making it harder for government agencies to do their job — which the government does care about. Stings like the second one legitimize the nutbars who shoot at census takers and public health officials.

      Which is also why it's really stupid and counterproductive (as well as immoral) to embed spies with vaccination teams, or to require ERs to report on patients' immigration status.

  4. This injustice seems closely related to the Wells Fargo unauthorized accounts problem: give people an impossible task with severe penalties for failing, and the obvious remedy is to cheat.

    I can see many possible "this person should be liable" candidates, but the recruits are not in that group.

    1. I agree completely.

      It is infuriating that we see this kind of thing repeatedly.

      "The buck stops three levels down."

  5. I hope this generosity of spirit applies to all who receive government benefits. If someone gets an accidental overpayment, at most there should be a long repayment plan (with no interest). Normal people don't have time to scrutinize every piece of paper they get from the government. (Unless it is somehow noticeably huge or something. Ha, but how often does that happen?)

    This though is from actual cheating, which I agree is wrong. Also, being as how I live here, I'm not happy that so many are sent overseas when we here might need them tomorrow. Earthquakes, unrest, you name it. Trying to put back together other societies where we have no business in the first place.

  6. It's probably unfair, but my gut response is that the veterans should keep their money and supporters of the Iraq war can chip in to pay the money back. Maybe they can pop off their flag pins, take off their "never forget" t-shirts, and scrape the support our troops stickers of their cars to sell on ebay.

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