Make stealing public money hard to do

Stealing taxpayer money apparently is an up-and-coming crime.

State law enforcement officials say they're seeing more cases of public embezzlement, which isn't all that surprising given the continuing troubled economy and the all-too-common human condition of greed.

In 2010, the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division, which investigates many of these cases, filed 107 charges of embezzlement, breach of trust and official misconduct, The (Columbia) State newspaper reports. In 2011, SLED filed 127 charges in those three categories. So far this year, they've filed 119 such charges.

We're no stranger to the problem here in Beaufort County. Former Beaufort County Clerk of Court Elizabeth Smith was convicted on state charges in 2010 and pleaded guilty in 2011 to federal charges of misusing more than $350,000 in public money. A former employee of the Beaufort County Treasurer's Office pleaded guilty in 2011 to stealing $210,000. In the past decade, Bluffton had two municipal court clerks found guilty of embezzling.

One suggestion for stopping this kind of crime is a more effective state whistleblower's law. Supporters say it would give people a financial incentive to turn in people who are stealing from the public.

A bill that stalled during the last legislative session would have removed a $2,000 cap on rewards for tips about abuses that resulted in saving the public money. Instead, the whistleblower could get 25 percent of any net savings. The bill also would have extended the time to seek redress for someone who was fired, demoted or received a pay cut as a result of their reporting wrongdoing.

That could help. People should be protected from reprisal and rewarded for taking a risk to report illegal activity.

But even better would be to prevent illegal activity in the first place by putting in place systems that provide appropriate checks and balances and oversight to prevent theft and detect attempted theft early on.

Several Beaufort County cases, including the Treasurer's Office problems, involved sloppy record-keeping and inadequate safeguards that made theft easier and prosecution more difficult. One of the first things newly elected treasurer Doug Henderson did when he took over in 2011 was to put in place much-needed checks and balances.

The clerk of court problems were detected in 2009 when Beaufort County tightened its accounting procedures.

Even when no criminal activity is detected, sloppy record-keeping can be a problem. In 2009, the county had difficulty determining how much money â€" if any â€" was missing or how much might be missing from Parks and Leisure Services accounts because financial records were in disarray.

We've seen a lot of improvement on this front in recent years, and that vigilance should continue. Few people like paying taxes; it only makes it worse when our money isn't handled responsibly.