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Investigation must follow the rules, too

Citizens who take it upon themselves to investigate what they see as improprieties in government should be commended for their efforts.

Tuesday, August 17, 1999

Citizens who take it upon themselves to investigate what they see as improprieties in government should be commended for their efforts. The only way to beat corruption is to remain ever-vigilant.

But when they investigate their charges, they have a responsibility, too. They have to follow the rules. Trespassing, harassment, accusations without proof, all those are not allowed – even when purpose might be noble.

So, it stands to reason that council members should be required to follow the same rules.

And like it or not, council members Hugh Donald Scott and Bob Vaughn have broken those rules in their pursuit of charges that federal grant money has been misused in the city.

First, Scott made an accusation against council members who weren’t even in office at the time of the alleged transgression. He also made his statement without any accompanying supporting documents.

Making a claim of wrongdoing without proof could be construed as slander. A private citizen who makes such a claim about a neighbor could face a lawsuit, especially if it turned out his accusation was incorrect.

Second, Vaughn decided that he would go out and photograph the properties where the alleged transgressions occurred. When asked what he was doing photographing a private citizen’s property, he answered that he was on "official city business."

In case you aren’t sure, here is the answer … no, he wasn’t. A councilman does not have the investigatory powers granted the police and sheriff. He is not a law enforcement officer … or James Bond.

If a councilman has a complaint, he should call on the city attorney to look into the matter. That is the right way to bring a concern before council and the community.

Scaring a private person who has nothing to do with the incident you are investigating and then refusing to identify yourself is wrong – and behavior that is unbecoming of a city official.

If Vaughn was indeed "on city business," he has no right to file any sort of lawsuit against a private citizen – one of his constituents by the way. That would be the job of the city attorney as well.

Questioning city policy is OK, and calling for an investigation is fine, too. Wrongdoing should be pursued vigorously.

But a concern that there might be something that needs to be looked into is not carte blanche to ignore law and throw out damaging accusations that are based on rumor and not fact.