A youthful tale of government corruption

To the Editor:

Having recently reconnected with some old Colonie and Guilderland friends, I was surprised to find that a lot of them didn’t share my distrust of big government. I had to realize that we all took different roads after high school.

During that 44-year period, some of us went to liberal institutions of higher learning, some worked in government, and some moved far away. I think it’s a good idea to share our formative experiences, those things that led to our unique perspectives. 

After having exited high school, a liberal in league with the Vietnam-era anti-war group, Students for a Democratic Society, I spent several years working for the federal government at the General Services Administration Motor Pool in Albany; it was one of the things that led to the formation of my current conservative political persuasion.

In my first week on the job, I learned that the pace of work there was about one-10th that of the private sector. A brake job that would take hours at a private auto repair shop would take days at the GSA motor pool.

Having been brought up to be a high achiever, I found it difficult to adjust to that pace. Over the following years there, I was introduced to some unique inventory control practices too. I never realized that having more tires in our inventory than we could account for was as bad as having a shortage. At least that’s what I was told when given a truck full to get rid of. 

And we were always short when we tried to reconcile the amount of gas in our underground tank with the amount we actually pumped every month. I never found out if the tank leaked or if someone was stealing it but I was told that was not my problem.

The way we dealt with it was to pump gas from the pump, through a garden hose, back into the underground tank and then write up a phony gas ticket for every car on the lot until we were even. 

The most egregious example of government corruption I ever witnessed began when the Albany police found one of our cars abandoned on a city street. It was definitely one of ours, a nearly new AMC Concord with government license plates — but we had no record of it ever having been part of our fleet. 

It had been abandoned with a seized engine after its driver had run over a metal signpost that punctured the oil pan. But who the driver was, we had no clue. My supervisor had no interest in finding out either.

He eventually told the rest of us blue-collar guys that someone who knew our unsecured ground-floor office routine must have walked in off the street while our entire office staff was taking lunch. He said it must have been a regular customer who would have known where we kept the new-car file folders.

Each car had a folder that contained all record of our ownership including keys, license plates, and title. That car (and others?) had been missing for months and we never knew it was gone. We had no record of ever having possessed it. So embarrassing, it was decided that we had to cover it up. 

I voiced my opposition and suggested that, if one of the regular government agents we routinely loaned these cars to had the nerve to help himself to a vehicle, he probably also helped himself to free gas from our pump. We would have a record of that.

Every car that came in for gas would have its license number on a punch card and the driver would sign it. We had boxes of them and — I was told to let it go. 

Before I get into how I discovered who drove the stolen government vehicle over a signpost that punctured the oil pan and continued to drive it without oil until the engine seized up, I want to tell you how we ripped off American Motors. 

To help cover up the embarrassing theft that occurred right under our noses, we secretly replaced the damaged oil pan with one from another car on our lot. We filled it with oil, towed it to the nearest AMC dealership and got the “defective” engine replaced under warranty. 

Back to my intro to the glory of detective work — if my suspicions bore out, I would be able to match the stolen car’s license number to a gas receipt with the driver’s signature. Having been told not to waste my time, which was actually the government’s time, on such a wild goose chase, I stubbornly chose my lunch break to start searching through those boxes. 

I don’t remember how long it took but my hunch paid off. The guy who took illegal possession of the car was so confident that no one would hold him accountable, that he brought it in for gas and signed his name to the receipt with the stolen car’s license number on it — just once.

He may have realized his mistake the second he rolled up to our gas pump but at that point he couldn’t get away with signing a fictitious name — we knew him too well. I trotted into my boss’s office with my prized evidence but he didn’t share my enthusiasm at all. He seemed disturbed at my persistence. Case closed — back to work.

I don’t know what became of the car thief but we never saw him after that. The manager of the motor pool retired and was replaced by a totally incompetent chair-warmer whom you had to suspect was transferred from some other department because he couldn’t be fired.

As soon as I achieved tenure, I quit and opened my own shop. The motor pool was audited and shut down after President Ronald Reagan took office — but obviously the government corruption continues.

David Crawmer

North Greenbush

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