The public suffers when big corporations and institutions flout the law with impunity
Imagine posting a lifeguard at a popular swimming beach who sits reading a book while swimmers cry desperately for help. It would be worse than no lifeguard at all, since swimmers would think someone had their back, even though they were really all on their own.
For citizens of the state of Minnesota, that is the reality we face today. We may believe that our system of government is providing us with protection against powerful interests that violate the law or scam the public, but in truth the lifeguard is out to lunch.
Nearly twenty years ago, when citizens in Tower-Soudan petitioned then-state auditor Mark Dayton to investigate suspicions of improper expenditures in the old Tower-Soudan School District, the auditor’s office had a team of investigators on the scene in just days. Auditor Dayton even came to Tower himself to assure residents that he would take their concerns seriously.
While the investigation eventually found no wrongdoing, it was reassuring that state officials were quick to respond when members of the public raised concerns.
There is little such reassurance for citizens these days. It’s been more than 16 months now since 1,400 residents of the St. Louis County School District petitioned State Auditor Rebecca Otto for an investigation of claims made by the school district to promote a yes vote in the Dec. 8, 2009, referendum— and the auditor’s office recently informed the petition organizers that the investigation is being delayed again, possibly for years. The auditor’s office claims the delay is due to an ongoing court case, but the case has little or nothing to do with the issues raised by audit petitioners. It’s just another supposed state watchdog ignoring the public’s cries for help.
We see this happen time and again. While we report this week that the Timberjay has, once again, received a favorable determination from the state’s Commissioner of Administration, in regards to our most recent freedom of information request to Johnson Controls, the ruling ultimately has no teeth and the Timberjay can’t expect anyone in state government to enforce the ruling if JCI decides to ignore it. Our only recourse? Hire an attorney and take them to court.
Voters in school districts around the state rightly assume that when officials from the Department of Education review a major school bonding proposal, they actually conduct some level of due diligence. It turns out, however, that they don’t review the financial figures or question assumptions provided by school district consultants, even when the consultants stand to reap millions of dollars from the projects. Instead, the department routinely gives stamps of approval to projects that make no sense. Once again, the supposed watchdog is napping.
At the county level, citizens were supposed to be able to rely on the oversight of the St. Louis County Planning Department, which is charged with enforcing the county’s zoning ordinance. Instead, department officials worked hand-in-glove with JCI to improperly grease the skids for school building projects that were completely incompatible with the zone districts in which they were proposed.
And now that the projects are underway, we learn that JCI has routinely flouted the contract they signed with the school district— and the board majority seems willfully blind to the reality that they are being taken for a ride.
So what are we, as members of the public, expected to do about it all?
Call the state auditor, who has already ignored us? Call the Department of Education who approved it all to begin with? Call the county? Call the police? You’d do just as well to call the Ghostbusters.
In the end, the public has only one recourse, and it’s a courtroom. And as we all know, that’s a recourse that’s largely reserved for those with money. Which is why, for all practical purposes, the law only applies to average people. For big corporations, like JCI, or large institutions like school districts, the law can usually be ignored. Even if the public finds out, what are they going to do about it? Spend tens of thousands of dollars on attorneys?
For big companies and school districts, that’s just a cost of doing business, but for the public it’s an insurmountable hurdle that all but denies them access to justice or the protection of the law.
It’s an indefensible situation that threatens our very system to the core. We hear all the time that we live in a nation of laws, which are meant to apply equally. But, in reality, if there is no one in government willing to enforce the law, and access to the courts is limited by the high cost, we don’t have equal justice. We have the powerful doing what they will, and the rest of us living with the consequences.
People need to understand that reality. We need to realize that the system is broken— that the watchdog is sleeping and that the cavalry isn’t coming. We’re swimming in the deep end, and no one has our back.