"Lavish Spending, Little Reward" Is Right.

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Nov 28, 2005 1:40 PM

The Washington Post has a good, investigative piece today on a contractor who fleeced the city of Washington, D.C. and its taxpayers out of millions of dollars for doing next to nothing.

The headline, "Lavish Spending, Little Reward," says it all. This is the kind of thing that turned me into a small-government conservative. Just a few tidbits from Archie Prioleau's dealings with D.C.:

Archie Prioleau's finances were in shambles when District officials entrusted him with $1.7 million in grants in 1998. His mission was to outfit a state-of-the-art computer center in Southwest Washington to train needy city residents, then place them in jobs.

That's $1.7 million to a man who was just emerging from bankruptcy. Anyone know of a loan officer who would be just half that nice to me? I could really use a house in the D.C. area, and I'm not even bankrupt.

With the District's approval, he gave himself an $82,000 salary and paid his brother $8,000 as a consultant. He spent $25,000 for signature artwork and a matching stainless steel table. He bought $6,000 chairs, a new blue sport-utility vehicle and a silver van, personalized with vanity tags. He spent $143 to settle debts at a florist and rush a "Happy Birthday" bouquet to the D.C. Council member who approved his grants. He billed taxpayers for it all.

Over seven years, District officials sank nearly $5.4 million into his projects. Three city agencies gave him multiple contracts, and four others had a role in making sure he was paid.

But when Prioleau's foundation collapsed last year, the city's investment evaporated. Most of the furnishings had been sold at public auction after languishing in a warehouse for almost two years. About $195,000 worth of equipment was sold for slightly less than $9,000, just to pay a storage bill. Prioleau closed his training center.

But surely the city got something for all those years of investments in "DC Link and Learn."

Victor Selman, chief operating officer for the housing agency, said he believes the District got its "money's worth" but said there is no way to verify Prioleau's figures.

The Department of Employment Services, which paid Prioleau $3.1 million to train disadvantaged youths, said his nonprofit organization found entry-level jobs and other placements for 136 youths between 2000 and 2004.

$3.1 million to place 136 youths in entry-level jobs. That's $22,794 to place each person. That's also just a few thousand less than an entry-level salary on the Hill. Using roughly a year's entry-level salary to place someone in an entry-level job doesn't seem like the wisest of investments to me.

But Victor Selman feels the city got its "money's worth." Yes, Mr. Selman, it's easy to say that when the money you're talking about isn't yours.

Which reminds me of Larry Reed's Fifth Principle of Sound Public Policy:

Nobody spends somebody else's money as carefully as he spends his own.

The list of Prioleau's abuses is 7 years long, and the District's complacency about it lasted just as long. It took the Washington Post's investigation for city officials to notice the problem, even though a simple search of GuideStar would have shown his non-profit hadn't filed an IRS Form 990 recently, as required by law. Prioleau was "politically connected," "gregarious," and made all the right donations to the right campaigns.

He was not beholden to any constituents, donors, or city officials-- he just buttered up the right folks, picked up a check, and got busy helping no one. And the District's government is so busy running a thousand similarly unhelpful programs that it can't even be bothered to do the one thing a government should do-- protect its citizens by being good stewards of their money.

As a conservative, I just believe there are better ways to help people than this. More and bigger government programs inevitably mean more money for leather chairs and custom artwork, not for the people who really need it. Sadly, those who profess to be most interested in helping people also seem to be the most willing to give government a free pass and a blank check when it shows no progress at all.

The Washington Post does just that with its subhead on the Prioleau story: "Good Intentions Gone Awry." Good intentions, you say? Well, by all means, give the gregarious man another grant! We laugh now, but it could happen.