When it comes to public ethics, things aren’t always black or white. There are plenty of actions that might not be illegal, but nonetheless would be seen by most people as an abuse of power.
In Ohio, such occurrences ultimately went unflagged in audit reports. But State Auditor Dave Yost wants to change that. In July, he implemented a new policy allowing for findings of “abuse” that are meant to draw attention to highly questionable behavior by public officials not directly contradicting state rules or laws. “We would see isolated instances where people were not breaking the law, but were treating the public purse as their own ATM,” says Yost, who emphasizes that most public employees are well intentioned. “There was a need for us to make a public record of it.”
Previously, Yost says, such instances of abuse rarely showed up in audit reports, even though the designation was permitted under state auditing guidelines. This meant that the public rarely learned of highly questionable -- but still legal -- offenses unless they were uncovered by a newspaper or watchdog group. (In some other states, instances of abuse are typically included as a part of larger reports.)
These abuses frequently involve areas where public officials make purchases at their own discretion, such as travel expenses. In one example cited by Yost, four members of a local school board attending a conference in Columbus stayed at a hotel that charged three times the nightly rate of neighboring hotels. In another case, a superintendent’s contract enabled him to receive $170,000 in public funds to pay off his college loans.
For Ohio auditors to flag an action as abuse, it must go beyond a mere error in judgment. The office will follow the federal government’s generally accepted auditing principles, which define abuse as “behavior that is deficient or improper when compared with behavior that a prudent person would consider reasonable and necessary business practice given the facts and circumstances.” As with traditional audits identifying misappropriation of funds, officials have an opportunity to respond to abuse findings prior to publication.
Officials found to have committed abuses won’t face penalties in a courtroom. But they will be subject to the court of public opinion. And that possibility of public shaming will act as a deterrent, says Yost. “The only consequence of finding an abuse is it seeing the light of day.”