McQuiston: Embezzlers

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(Host) Commentator Tim McQuiston sees a silver lining in the recent rash of embezzlement cases – because the perpetrators are being sent to jail. This should help to make someone think twice before sticking their hand in the till.

(McQuiston) Recent headlines report that Vermont has been named the worst state in the nation for the risk of embezzlement.

There doesn’t seem to be a logical reason for this, even as we witness case after case with our own eyes. It might be argued that Vermont’s small organizations may lack sufficiently robust institutional controls. But Ben & Jerry’s has been a recent victim, and it’s a big business owned by a giant multinational. And, in any case, Virginia and Florida are among the worst off – and they’re hardly small states.

We can’t really blame hard economic times either, because Vermont has suffered less in the Great Recession than nearly every other state. And although Vermonters are typically trusting by nature, embezzling tends not to be done for the reasons you might think; it’s almost always just about greed.

There are plenty of laws against theft – which is what embezzlement is – and trouble with the IRS is practically guaranteed, so what gives? Well, in my humble opinion, the problem is societal acceptance – and it’s something that I’ve witnessed first hand.

Some years ago, I worked at a newspaper group in another state in which upper management was trading advertising space for personal goods and services – a business practice that’s usually perfectly legitimate. The managers were pretty open about it, so we employees just assumed that the absentee owners knew all about it.

Turns out they didn’t, and I’ve always wished I’d been there when the perps were brought out in handcuffs and stuffed into the back of police cruisers.

But the problem was that the owners were embarrassed and just wanted some of their money back; so the managers essentially got away with everything except their jobs.

What the owners decided, as others have and will, was that putting up with theft from the company was just another cost of doing business. To the alleged embezzlers, trading advertising for new cars and in-ground pools was just part of the game. If they got caught, they’d have to give back pennies on the dollar. Big deal.

Today, as the Vermont Legislature considers more effective laws to scare away potential embezzlers and round up those who’ve been robbing the store, I’d like to remind them that the problem is not so much legal as societal. The public mindset has been that it’s not really a crime – like sticking up a convenience store – but more like cheating on your taxes. Not right, of course, but everyone does it so why be a chump?

Still, it now seems that the businesses, government entities, and nonprofits that have been victimized by recent embezzlers in Vermont – sometimes to an extraordinary degree – have shaken off their apathy and decided to let the criminal courts deal with it. I see this as a positive development.

Government needs only to encourage employers to treat embezzlement as the crime it is. Jail time is a great convincer.

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