Learning from a bad example

There is a zombie-like quality to government. Neutralize the zombies and the subsequent calm masquerades as peace. But avoid curtailing monkeyshine opportunities, and it’s return of the living dead.

Except for the zombie part, this would make perfect sense to James Madison.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” Madison wrote in Federalist 51. “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

The head-shaking reign of former Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon is a case study. On Monday, Reardon’s former aide Kevin Hulten pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence during a criminal investigation. A $1,500 fine and five days on a Skagit County work crew is kindergarten justice for the expense and havoc Hulten, Reardon and company created for the people of Snohomish County. But over time, thanks to the investigative bird-dogging of The Herald’s Scott North and Noah Haglund, there will be a reckoning. The Public Disclosure Commission eventually will issue its report, throwing light on dark corners, and making whole Madison’s axiom on the need for necessary controls.

The Hulten narrative plays out like a creepy version of “Catch Me If You Can:” Public benefits flow from studying a monkeyshiner’s’s craft. Hulten’s use of digital tools to conceal his “black hat jobs,” for example, illustrate the need for better tech controls. As The Herald reported in March, Hulten used his county computer and the cloud-based file-sharing program Dropbox to hide online smear campaigns and memos, even background checks on others in county government (much of it on county time). Hulten also utilized web-based services to cover-up his identity.

What’s to prevent cyber deju vu? County Executive John Lovick has the gravitas and moral compass that was absent from the office for nearly a decade. But a meaningful remedy to Hulten-Reardon-style duplicity requires concrete, if men-were-angels safeguards.

“The solution starts with leadership that doesn’t tolerate deception and spying,” Lovick said earlier this year. “It must be followed by policies and procedures that keep pace with information technology and the need for transparency.”

County Auditor Carolyn Weikel, who has authority over the county’s computer system until the end of the year, said she’s been working with attorneys to redraft county records policy to minimize confusion. And elected officials now receive mandatory public records training. All good. But until government technology is crook-proofed (a perpetual task) and destroying public records spells jail time, zombies will walk the earth.

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