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Editorial: Whistleblowing policy needs expansion
February 27, 2013, 05:00 AM Editorial
Earlier this month, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors passed a whistleblowing ordinance, officially called the internal controls/fraud prevention initiative. It establishes a web-based hotline and new ethics curriculum for San Mateo County employees with the goal of restoring some of the public's faith in local government, particularly local districts, that has been tarnished by recent incidents of financial fraud and abuse. When the ordinance passed, we applauded the board's decision and said it was a good first step in that it also expands Controller's Office software to identify unusual financial activities and creates a way for workers to anonymously report questionable practices. We strongly believe it is a policy that should be adopted by other governmental agencies in the county -- particularly those that have been the victim of fraud.

While embezzlement and fraud are serious issues, the recent felony child possession charges against former chief probation officer Stuart Forrest are even more so. If true, these crimes are about as red as red flags get. They are a strong indication of the need for an expansion of this policy to move beyond financial impropriety. Forrest, who retired after federal officials raided his office in December, led a key department in the county government that is going through significant change because of state realignment.

If true, the allegations that he possessed child pornography in a position that oversees incarcerated children is certainly alarming on many different levels. Might it be possible that there was other behavior in the past that may have indicated questionable judgment or a proclivity to these alleged crimes? If yes, a whistleblowing policy would have assisted in alerting those who could do something about it.

Since he was in a position of power, it may be difficult for someone in his department to sound the alarm and raise a red flag. By expanding the new whistleblower policy to include other concerns outside of financial wrongdoing, the county can take a strong stand in protecting itself from questionable behavior from the top of all departments to the bottom. The Probation Department has had its share of troubles over the years, whether it be escapes from its juvenile facilities or lawsuits over its employment practices. We believe strongly in the concept of innocence until guilt is proven, and we look forward to seeing justice take its course in Forrest's court case. A jury will make a decision on his innocence or guilt. But these allegations are towering in their seriousness. Whether Forrest is guilty or innocent, there needs to be some additional precautions installed so that all workers with suspicions can alert the proper authorities. Most everyone can agree that the county is well run and that even well-run organizations -- particularly of a large size -- can fall victim to rotten individuals. However, over the years, there have been instances of questionable behavior in more than one of the county's top offices.

If the county sees fit to remove the tarnish of recent instances of financial impropriety in special districts and even its own organization through a whistleblower policy, it should also expand that to include other types of improprieties. And county officials can take it even further to include an independent oversight official or commission with the proper authority to make stern recommendations and changes based on any disclosures derived from it.

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