Private profits violate public trust

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman
Canyon County Prosecutor John Bujak seems baffled about the controversy surrounding his private contract with the city of Nampa.

Let’s clear up the confusion.

Bujak’s contract treats $598,000 of public money like private money. It introduces profit as a motivating factor in dispensing criminal justice. It seems motivated to help Bujak’s personal financial plight – and not necessarily stretch taxpayer dollars.

And there’s no transparency. Taxpayers are supposed to take it on faith that Bujak can handle Nampa’s misdemeanor cases at a better price.

Is Bujak honestly surprised by the red flags? Granted, Bujak is a relative newcomer to elected office, only 17 months removed from private practice. But this goes beyond learning-curve stuff. This arrangement, shrouded in secrecy and fraught with problems, is clearly the wrong way to do the people’s business.

Maybe Bujak can save Nampa about $150,000 by handling its misdemeanor cases. Maybe money from the city’s contract will defray non-personnel expenses in the county prosecutor’s office; Commissioner Kathy Alder pegs the county’s savings at up to $276,000.

Consolidation holds promise, in theory. And, often, in reality.

The fatal flaw is in the secretive money trail. Nampa’s money would go into a private trust account that only Bujak could access. Bujak would be allowed to personally profit from savings – perhaps up to $50,000.

Said Alder last week: “I think it stands to reason that if there was money left over, he would get it.”

Says who? The taxpayers who ponied up the money in the first place? We’re skeptical about that.

When a profit motive is part of the equation, are corners cut in the name of padding the margin? It’s one thing to save money on office supplies, but profit-driven prosecutorial decisions are unacceptable.

And no, it doesn’t comfort us that this contract covers “only” misdemeanors. This remains public work that must be conducted in the public interest.

Consider Bujak’s well-documented personal debts. His home is in foreclosure and he faces other debts stemming from his move from private practice to a $101,608-a-year county job. He has said the Nampa contract could help him pay down his debts. At some point, does Bujak’s personal predicament color his decisions?

These are valid questions, but unanswerable questions, because of Bujak’s insistence on secrecy. Bujak was in court Thursday asserting that the contract’s bank records should remain secret. Bujak’s demand for privacy flies in the face of his standing as an elected county official seeking to work on behalf of a city.

It is alarming to see a county prosecutor stride into a courtroom to argue in favor of profiteering and against transparency.

The Nampa city attorney’s office has offered a common-sense path forward: Bujak should allow the county auditor’s office to handle the city’s payments. Consider it an overdue course correction, since the Nampa City Council approved the ill-advised idea of the private account.

Bujak would have to swallow some pride and forgo some profit potential, but it would keep the public’s books open, as they should be.

Even Bujak would realize some benefit: If his prosecutorial services provide such a win-win for the taxpayer, he could stop telling us and start showing us.

“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board.

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

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