Once upon a time (Thursday), a gray-haired lady living in a cottage in a dark forest clinging to the edge of Earth’s Oldest Mountains gazed into a magical looking glass. The mirror says: “You are honest. You are doing good. You are fine.”
The mirror lies.
I’ve built a soap box for myself, stood upon it, making a declaration that corruption exists throughout our culture and community. And yet, I didn’t even recognize my own efforts to commit fraud – on purpose, for the general good. On Thursday, I decided I would willingly commit a little fraud. Who’d know? How would I get caught?
I so wish I were kidding too. I know I have an essay entitled “Today I am going to commit a crime” – I thought I was speaking tongue-in-cheek.
On Thursday I had no such intention. My own reflection told me not to worry. In my little fairy tale, which is entirely a true story, does not have a “happily ever after” or even tagged with a “the end”.
The facts. I made a sales presentation to a quazi-governmental agency who has provided our firm and businesses in my region a ton of guidance and help. We’ve competed business plans, taken classes, and make friends we can laugh with. I am still a bit annoyed I lost a business plan competition to a fellow talking about chicken feed while using the Latin name for everything. The lesson for me then, as it is now, understanding the complexity of managing public funds ranks below feed for Galliformes (chicken-shaped birds).
This agency has a CARES Act grant to help business in the state. We have grant management software. Their budget is tiny, and they’ve been helpful. I assure them, we will provide everything they need for $833.33 per month. I am the hero of my own story.
But then the pesky true crept in on silent feet. Our pricing is determined by the United State Government General Services Agency (GSA). We chose to step up to their window. We submitted a proposal then subsequently awarded a contract. We deliberately accepted all of their terms. We became a trusted and approved government vendor. My desire to help my neighbor would have resulted in a little lie. Like so many little lies, it masked the bigger lie behind it. Helping our neighbor in the way I envisioned would have defrauded the U.S. government of the promise we made. We promised that the U.S. Government and any state, or state agency would always get our best pricing. We promised integrity in our dealings.
We promised to let GSA audit our sales. Then I fudge the truth. “I’ll sell you X for Y’s price.” No one will know. Soy idiota. This is not a case of over-reaching federal regulations. We made this decision. We executed with eyes open. We signed the contracts. And yet, it was so easy for me to sit in a room with two others knowing I was selling the full power of X for a price one hundredth of the value.
The right-way was so easy, just not obvious or intuitive. The benefit of the right-way overflowed with yield. I failed to see my own (almost) mistake.
We donate X to our local organization. The value of X is a known and established by GSA. We donate that service/software to a team who has been so helpful. And – what a powerful word “And” is. This organizations gets a lovely donation. They need donations. As a recipient of numerous grants, they need to show that they have skin-in-the-game too. That’s the way a lot of grants work. You have a $100 project. Uncle Sam gives you $75, and you prove you got $25 to support it. Our in-kind contribution helps them that. AND, and we get a tax credit.
And, and we stay on the right side of the law.
Mirrors lie. People lie. I lied to myself. For no good reason either. I saw a shorter, apparently simpler path and wanted to go that way. I called the accountant, got confirmation that donation of services was legal, beneficial, and required one or two extra steps. The recipient of our largess must write us a letter acknowledging the donation. GSA is happy. IRS is happy. And… And I can continue exploring corruption in our culture knowing I am vulnerable and blind to everyday problems.
The Polygraph Machine
I’ll digress from my not-a-fairy-tale to explore my own fears of the polygraph machine – of a mirror that doesn’t lie. There were years of my life when I thought maybe this is the year I get interviewed while strapped to a lie detector. I had government clearance and cool plastic badges. I never faced that day of reckoning. I did sign papers that told me I could never travel to eleven countries because of what was in my head. I have forgotten which countries those were. Most of the secrets I once knew you can read in Wikipedia with greater clarity and understanding than I ever had.
Regardless, facing the box gave me reasons to worry. I’ve told lies. I have committed felonies. Some one or two people have yelled at me telling me I was a murderer.
I don’t think I have committed murder. These denials don’t keep the haunt from my worst night. Some of you will know that endless loop of flashing – staccato – images, that repeating narrative that I can’t change. Those dark hours praying for unconsciousness and comfort waiting for dawn with open eyes in a dark room.
Given I built my own pulpit to stand on, I should acknowledge my frail human core.
In the mid-1980s during college or in the year after, I committed assault, battery, and kidnapping (at least once). I was a young EMT working urban ambulances responding to 911 calls. In those years, there was also an influx of Haitian people to the Boston area. I know that during a call to a small apartment filled with human beings, we went to examine an old man – who was dying.
My crappy high-school French barely help us communicate. How far can one go with Bonjour, mon crayon rouge est dan le tableau? While in the room, I saw a young person with stick-skinny arms and a bloated belly. We took the old man in our stair-chair and I picked up the kid in my arms. We carried the old man and the kid down multiple flights to our ambulance.
My uniform was dark blue over dark blue. I had a badge on my chest, a heavy radio on my lapel, and a flash-light-cum-baton on my hip. We dropped them both at the city hospital with little explanation. They hospital staff had mysteries to solve and likely they also had people to translate – we disappeared off to the next 911 call.
I could not communicate with this family. Therefore, I acted. Maybe for the greater good, maybe not. I have no idea and the older I get the more doubt I have. I wish this story stood alone, but it doesn’t. Many EMTs, paramedics, and cops can tell you a variation of this story. No paperwork exists on my action. Too many bad options, too few resources, and too many demands. I never ever mentioned this case aloud for two decades. My partner on the ambulance and I never talked about it. I am certain the next call was worse. By the time I was in my early twenties, I had responded to 10,000 emergency calls – eight to 15 in a day.
When thinking about being tied to a box that reads my thoughts, I can imagine making the stylus wiggle as my pulse shifts, and a bit of sweat appears on my skin: Have you ever knowingly committed a felony? Clearly, I am supposed to answer no to keep my clearance and stay out of jail. Yet, I kidnapped a child from his family. And maybe worse; definitely worse.
I strive to look on the bright side of life. I appreciate a mirror that occasionally lies to me because facing the truth hurts.
Please keep the conversation going, but do not admit to felonies (certainly recent ones)