Saunders: It’s the cover-up that smells in ALE car case

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJune 20, 2012 

Here it is, barely a week removed from the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in and the beginning of the scandal that toppled a crooked president, and yet government officials still don’t heed the one indisputable lesson from that travesty: It’s the cover-up that does you in, not the initial offense.

Think about it: If Tricky Dick Nixon had just come clean and blamed the break-in at the Watergate office complex on overzealous political operatives or on his own paranoia, the five burglars might’ve done a little time in the pokey and there’d have been some political embarrassment.

Rather than winning re-election by carrying 49 states, as he did, Nixon might’ve had to settle for carrying only 48. In any event, the scandal would’ve faded away and Nixon might be regarded – albeit undeservedly – as a statesman.

Instead, he set off a scandal and investigation that almost brought down the government and got many of us interested in journalism as a career. Thanks, Tricky.

Now, four decades later, two top cats in the state Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement get caught not with their hands in the cookie jar but allegedly with their butts in the bucket seats of state-owned cars for apparently unauthorized trips home. And instead of saying “Sorry, hoss” and paying for the gas they burned, they, too, allegedly tried to cover up their indiscretion.

That’s the state auditor’s contention anyway. Auditor Beth Wood’s office concluded this week that ALE Director John Ledford and Deputy Director of Operations Allen Page violated state policy by driving state-owned cars to their homes near the mountains around Asheville on weekends.

Wood said they subsequently sought to intimidate her investigators into dropping their investigation by asking for their employment records. Their indiscretions were made even more “egregious,” she said, by the fact that Ledford and Page are top officials, not low-level underlings.

‘Manifestly inappropriate’

The duo’s boss, Department of Public Safety Secretary Reuben Young, denies anything inappropriate has been proven and bristled at Wood’s suggestion that he discipline Ledford and Page. Such suggestions, Young said, were “manifestly inappropriate.”

Oh man. You just know that somewhere, the late Nixon is going, “Way to stonewall, boys.”

I asked Dennis Patterson, the auditor’s spokesman, what discipline that office recommended. “Just that they reimburse the state for gas mileage,” he said.

Did he know how many trips they took, and how much they’d have to pay back? I asked.

“We never could get to that point because we couldn’t get the documents from them,” Patterson said. Close to 500 miles round-trip each trip, Ledford and Page drove Chevy Tahoes and Dodge Chargers, among other autos. As Patterson noted, “They weren’t driving cheap.”

Paying the piper

I’ll tell you what: Paying for the gas or driving their own cars or even renting a limo would’ve been cheaper than undergoing the scrutiny they’re enduring now.

Thus, as a warning to the alleged ALE obfuscation efforts and to other state employees considering bad trips, here is a musical warning to the tune of the Chairmen of the Board’s “Pay to the Piper.”

Maestro, hit it:

If you drive to the mountains, don’t you know you’ve got to pay for the mileage.

Ask yo mama.

If you drive to the mountains, don’t you know you’ve got to pay for the mileage ...

The workweek’s over and the weekend’s long

You said it’s time that you went home.

The drive is lonesome, and it’s oh so far.

But you can’t get there driving this state car... or 919-836-2811

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