Wednesday, May 22, 2024 May 22, 2024
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NAKED CITY The Candy Factor

Why has ripping off the public become our national pastime?

DR. MARVIN CRAWFORD JR., looking tanned and chiseled but a bit pinched in the nerves, faced his critics stoically. It had been 11 days since The Dallas Morning News catapulted the Grand Prairie school superintendent from blessed obscurity to ignoble fame, accusing him on the front page of the Sunday paper of all manner of financial improprieties.

This was his first appearance in front of the school board since the newspaper bombshell. Sitting in the middle of a horseshoe-shaped dais, flanked by school board members, he was trying to put a normal face on the monthly meeting. But one by one, irritated Grand Prairie citizens were approaching the microphone to speak.

“I’m asking Dr. Crawford to reimburse the district for the thousands of dollars he has taken for his personal use, ” resident Bob Mahoney said. “… I’m not one of those who thinks he should quit, resign, or be fired, but I think he should make an immediate reimbursement. “

Next, please. And so it went.

It almost made you feel sorry for the 51-year-old educator with the formerly pristine professional record. It made you want to pat him on the shoulder and say, “There, there, now, Mr. Superintendent, we know you must be innocent of these charges. After all, why would a man like you. who makes $108, 000 a year, put your entire career on the line for a $100 baseball glove, or a $40 football, or two $20 basketballs?”

Marvin Crawford would have to be stupid to throw away 30 years in the trenches for a couple of balls. Right?

Well, if he is stupid, he’s got plenty of company.

This spring, there were lots of similar stories.

John Sununu, who works in Washington for President Bush, ran back and forth to his dentist in Boston on military aircraft, which cost taxpayers almost $4, 000 an hour, plus crew salaries.

The president of Stanford University charged the federal government for, among many other things, a reception to introduce his new wife; fresh flowers, bed sheets, table linens, and a cedar-lined closet for his presidential residence: and depreciation on the university’s 72-foot yacht.

Bill Taylor, the former director of the Texas Department of Commerce, spent $3, 600 of public money soundproofing his office: $277 a night on hotel rooms in New York City; $200 on three gallons of margaritas; and $30, 000 on a fancy booklet that touted his accomplishments to the state Legislature.

The nagging question here is not whether this abuse will stop- it won’t-but why these people feel compelled to do these things.

If these were isolated, rare instances, we could just chalk it up to outbursts of sociopathic behavior. But it’s too widespread for that. So we must look deeper.

We must look, for example, to the fact that many public servants resent private servants.

Bill Cosby, for example. He is reportedly the highest-paid entertainer in America, partly because he is able to dream up pithy things to say about Jell-0 pudding. Surely, a regular John like Sununu must lie awake at night, fretting over the fact that guys like Cosby and Sylvester Stallone never have to think twice about using a dentist who is six states away.

But surely there’s more to ripping off the public than envy.

How about the Other People’s Money factor? People who have access to huge piles of moola they themselves did not sweat to earn tend to feel less protective of it. Surely that was Bill Taylor’s sentiment when he asked a valet in an out-of-town hotel to come and press a suit, a dress, and a pair of slacks, happy in the knowledge that when the $17 charge was added to his bill, it would not put the slightest dent in his $74, 970-a-year salary.

And when Lauro Cavazos was jetting around the country as the U. S. education secretary, he didn’t fret over the extra money he apparently spent flying from Washington to Texas via, say, Oakland, California-expensive, circuitous routes that enabled his wife to accompany him with free tickets he obtained through frequent-flyer credits.

But there’s a third element working here: It’s called The Grand Prairie Candy Factor-named, of course, for the beloved suburb that before Marvin Crawford’s debut in the Morning News was known primarily for its long, exitless existence along Interstate 30 and its tacky wax museum, which housed Judge Sarah T. Hughes’s swearing-in-of-LBJ dress until it burned in that big fire a few years ago.

Although the News’s piece centered on Crawford, he’s not really the big story out there. In fact, he could actually be eligible for a medal for taking only a little bit, considering what he could have done. Because GPISD board members had pretty much given him the key to the safe when they wooed him away from Carthage, Texas.

Here was his initial deal, cut in 1986: $63, 400 in annual salary; $10, 600 for a car and other personal-perk expenses; a $4, 000 IRA; and a district-issued American Express Card for work-related expenses. Crawford’s deal was sweetened in 1988 with a $2, 400 allowance for country club dues.

It’s those work-related expenses that apparently got Crawford in trouble. Although the News story made it seem that Crawford was bamboozling the district for God knows how many thousands of dollars in personal purchases, the only thing the paper could specifically pin on him was the sporting equipment, which he claimed he bought for his wife (a teacher) and son (a student) to use at school. Although the results of a Texas Education Agency audit aren’t due until July 1, the report apparently clears Crawford of any fraud, focusing instead on his contract and his generally lax spending habits and record keeping.

One reason those habits developed, it seems, was the fact that the GPISD board decided to keep Crawford’s contract secret- so secret, in fact, that the district’s own financial officers were not privy to it. They were instructed, instead, to simply pay the monthly American Express bill and cut Crawford checks whenever he requested them, for whatever amounts he requested. No documentation required.

Former board member H. C. Buddy White says the board didn’t think twice about not asking for documentation; they trusted Crawford. Of Crawford’s $10, 600 for expenses, he says: “We basically told him, ’Okay, don’t have any beer parties in the building or any dancing girls in, but that expense money is yours, just like salary money. ’ We weren’t telling him how to spend that expense money. We’ve been pretty lax. “

One reason they were lax with Crawford, White and others readily admit, is because they were lax about their own expenses. For example, several years ago the board made a trip to New York City to discuss its bond rating. The business at hand took only a few hours on a Friday. For that, the GPISD sent 10 people. They were the seven board members, Crawford, former Assistant Superintendent Robert Goff, and a financial adviser. Nine spouses accompanied the group at a discounted rate.

Recalls board member Jim Swafford: “Nothing can cause me to feel bad very quickly, but on that trip I was choking because it was so extravagant. We had drinks at Top of the Sixes, lunch at Windows On The World, brunch at the Russian Tea Room. I mean, on a business trip for my bank, I might hit one of those places in a week, but we hit all of them right in a row. We had dinner at The ’21’ Club, and that came to $100 a plate, not including the wine, which, I found out later that night was running $100 a bottle. And that’s $100 that the taxpayer was paying for. And that’s just ridiculous. “

So is the fact that not long after the trip, Goff was caught charging the district for $7, 000 in personal items, including golf clubs, a guitar, and a radar detector (he is now serving five years’ probation); Goffs finance director was charged with embezzling almost $34, 000 from the district (he is awaiting trial); and Goffs payroll supervisor was caught writing payroll checks to herself, to the tune of $86, 000 over two years (she spent 30 days in jail and is making restitution).

“It was like the candy was laid out there on the table, and then everyone left the room, ” says one of those who reached for the candy. “And when you basically know that someone else is taking some of the candy, you say, ’Well, I’ll take a piece of the candy myself. ’”

And so they all did.

And as long as we keep providing the candy, so will others.