Front Royal, Virginia, is just 70 miles from Washington, D.C., by road but a million miles away by culture. One resident described the town, which bills itself as “the northern gateway way to the Shenandoah Valley,” as “sort of like Mayberry.” This author, having visited the city many times, can confirm that description.
Federal, state, and local authorities say the town has become victim to tens of millions of dollars in embezzlement and corruption involving more than a dozen county officials.
The director of the Warren County economic development authority announced that she had brokered a deal to open a police academy, data center, and retail outlets with hundreds of new jobs, but there was a catch: She would need $21 million in agency funds to attract outside investment. Instead, authorities say she and her partners embezzled the money for themselves and their families; one defendant even staged an office break-in and blamed it on a county supervisor to deflect suspicion.
Dozens of charges have been filed against all five county supervisors and a total of 14 current or former government officials.
The Washington Post reports they are among a growing number of government officials who use the citizens’ implicit trust, and lack of oversight, for personal enrichment:
The claims against them, industry groups say, reflect the perils of weak oversight in economic development agencies — quasi-public entities that oversee large, complicated transactions, and whose boards often lack the financial savvy and investor scrutiny that protect their corporate counterparts. In Montgomery County, Md., an economic development official pleaded guilty this year to embezzling $6.7 million. The head of economic development in St. Louis pleaded guilty to steering lucrative contracts to the county executive’s political donors. In New Jersey, a grand jury is investigating how $500 million in tax incentives went to firms that, in part, allegedly lied on their applications.
“The lessons here are that there’s a need for better financial accountability,” said Jeff Finkle, head of the nonprofit International Economic Development Council. “People beyond one person who is managing a project where the temptation may be too great.”
“For years, the local government ‘has been skewed [in favor] of the elite and the good ol’ boys’ club,’” the Post quotes a local woman as saying.
So, alas, is every government, everywhere – so much that Pope Francis recently warned about the dangers of international development aid in impoverished Africa.
“At times it seems that those who approach with the alleged desire to help have other interests. Sadly, this happens with brothers and sisters of the same land, who let themselves be corrupted,” he said in Mozambique. “It is very dangerous to think that this is the price to be paid for foreign aid.”
Pope Francis underscores that the possibility of corruption attaches itself to every government program. Corruption occurs when a heart follows its own selfish impulse to misuse any portion of God’s creation.
Those who would place more of the economy under government oversight to avoid “corporate corruption” should pay close attention to Front Royal. Corruption is not corporation-centered. It springs from the dankest cisterns of the human heart. Martin Luther explained in his Larger Catechism:
For those who are so minded that they do not realize their condition I know no better counsel than that they put their hand into their bosom to ascertain whether they also have flesh and blood. And if you find that to be the case, then go, for your good, to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, and hear what sort of a fruit your flesh is: Now the works of the flesh (he says [Gal. 5:19ff ]) are manifest, which are these: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revelings, and such like. … Yea, St. Paul further concludes in Rom. 7:18: I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing. If St. Paul may speak thus of his flesh, we do not propose to be better nor more holy. …
In the second place, look about you and see whether you are also in the world … If you are in the world, do not think that there will be lack of sins and misery. … Besides this, you will also have the devil about you, whom you will not entirely tread under foot, because our Lord Christ Himself could not entirely avoid him. Now, what is the devil? Nothing else than what the Scriptures call him, a liar and murderer.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” the Bible says. This sad story proves that the thief may come in any guise, public or private sector. Corruption may rear its head anywhere from Mozambique to Mayberry.
(Photo credit: Jason Riedy. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)