It’s too soon to say exactly how much money was siphoned from the Southold Town Justice Court over the course of years — the DA’s office is still investigating and an arrest is imminent. But it’s safe to assume there was little or no oversight in place to prevent such thefts from happening in the first place.
There are always warning signs, and town officials should be held accountable for not catching this sooner, but this isn’t a situation unique to Southold Town. Too often in government, and much more often in the private sector, clerks and bookkeepers set up one-person shops, so to speak, and find themselves in a position to skim money without anyone noticing. But people eventually do notice, and only then are safeguards put in place to prevent stealing in the future.
Come that time, however, the damage is already done. And for a small business, that could mean bankruptcy.
Let the news of this week serve as a reminder to local business owners and government officials that they must take the proper steps to protect themselves and the taxpayers ahead of time.
In a way, a small town is run like a small business; there are relatives involved, pals who go way back and decades-old allegiances among colleagues. It becomes almost impossible to approach people with suspicions of wrongdoing without inflicting deep personal wounds. That’s why more impersonal precautions and systems need to be put in place to prevent malfeasance.
The town and small businesses should take a page from financial institutions, and even seek their counsel, as they develop plans to prevent internal theft. In banking, to name one example, top money-handlers are often required to take vacations that amount to at least two weeks in a row, so that whoever fills in for them during that time would catch any suspicious activity.
Taking such basic precautions not only protects the business or taxpayer, it can also protect otherwise good and decent people from themselves and their own temptations.