Individuals on public payroll should expect close scrutiny

While we applaud Warren Mayor Michael J. O'Brien for warning city employees not to use official stationery or the work day to write letters of support for scofflaws, we think he missed a golden opportunity to establish a standard of behavior for those on the public payroll.
Given the ongoing investigations of government corruption in Trumbull County, O'Brien, a veteran politician who has served as county commissioner and city councilman, would have stood out from the crowd had he let city government types know that going to bat for individuals with legal problems is ill-advised. Why? Because it feeds the public's perception that government is dominated by a bunch of crooks who see nothing wrong in using their public positions for personal gain.
While we don't endorse such a broad-brush indictment, the purchasing scandal in Trumbull County government that has netted several individuals, including the former maintenance director, and the 70-plus convictions in Mahoning County of judges and other officeholders, lawyers and organized crime figures have fed residents' negative attitudes.
That is why we were struck by a recent letter from O'Brien to city department heads. The letter, signed by the mayor and his public safety-service director, William D. Franklin, opened with this: "It has come to our attention that individual, or individuals, who have current problems in the legal system, are soliciting letters of reference from city employees before sentencing."
While warning city employees not to use city stationery, city equipment, hold themselves out as representing the city, or using time during their work hours to write letters of support, O'Brien and Franklin made it clear that the city "in no way restrains anyone from writing a letter on their own time and their own stationery."
Rebuilding public trust
If only they had added this "however" -- as in, "However, in the interest of rebuilding public trust and faith in government, we would urge city employees to refrain from expressing their support for those in trouble with the law."
Although the letter did not mention any individual by name, the timing coincides with the guilty plea of David Robison, former city director of engineering, on 19 counts of mail fraud and one count each of extortion and racketeering. Robison, who is to be sentenced Nov. 17 by U.S. District Court Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. in Cleveland, was accused of taking bribes from contractors from the early 1990s through mid-July 2000.
He faces 33 to 41 months in federal prison.
It is not usual for family members to write letters to a judge begging mercy, nor is it a rarity for members of the clergy to intercede on behalf of some crooked public official. However, we have consistently condemned such interference. After all, violation of the public's trust isn't just about one person. It's about undermining the entire system of government.
We hope that Judge Solomon follows the lead of his colleague, U.S. District Court Judge Peter C. Economus of Youngstown, who last June refused to consider letters of support on behalf of an admitted drug dealer.
Economus termed as "completely inaccurate" the perception that judges solicit and consider such letters, which he called self-serving. He also said they were opinions, conjecture and supposition, whereas the presentence investigation report contains an objective evaluation of the convict.
Having city of Warren employees writing on behalf of Robison not only is a slap in the face of their ultimate employers, the taxpayers, but it further undermines the credibility of local government.
Mayor O'Brien and Safety-Service Director Franklin should issue a cease-and-desist advisory.

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