Many culprits in police scandal

Eastern Express Times (Pennsylvania), EDITORIAL; Pg. A4

Bethlehem, PA

You almost wish there were a better back story to the theft case and sudden retirement of Bethlehem police Sgt. Cheryl Ruth, but the allegations surfacing this week paint a picture of a public servant who stole from the department's evidence room for seven years and a somnambulant police administration that took nearly a decade to catch up with the crime.

As egregious as such a breach of public trust is, it's compounded by the fact that there was no earlier intervention. The ultimate slap to taxpayers and common sense is that Ruth, who was in charge of the evidence room, was allowed to retire and begin collecting a $44,400 pension as if she had completed the most honorable of careers. In fact, she had been on medical leave for a year, was promoted to sergeant on April 3, 2009, and submitted retirement papers that day.

She wasn't questioned by investigators about the missing $19,000 until a year later, in April 2010.

Court papers indicate that Ruth cooperated with the probe when confronted, admitted to the thefts under polygraph questioning and told investigators she spent the money gambling in Atlantic City. Police said she began taking cash in 2001 that had been seized in criminal cases, and the thefts continued until 2008.

Consider:

Nine years to catch the accused.

Less than one day for her to get a promotion to sergeant, take a $5,512 bump in pay, boosting her pension benefit, and begin retirement.

If that's not enough, Ruth will continue to enjoy her $44,400-a-year pension for the rest of her life (and any associated health coverage to which she is entitled) because they aren't touchable, even if she is convicted of theft, according to police officials' interpretation of the city pension ordinance.

Assuming these findings hold up in court, Ruth no doubt will be ordered to reimburse her former employer of the $19,000 and pay any other fines and penalties, and serve jail time or probation. Yet as that debt flows back to Bethlehem, Bethlehem taxpayers will continue to assure that Ruth is monetarily secure in her retirement, and that's just wrong.

There's two ways to look at the injustice here. One is that a flawed set of personnel/benefit procedures worked as designed - shielding and rewarding an employee who managed to work the timetable and pension schedule to her benefit. Had investigators confronted her earlier with the allegations, she would have been fired.

The other is the failure of police officials to ensure the integrity of the evidence room couldn't be rigged by the person in charge of it and that it wouldn't require two audits and a criminal investigation over several years to get to the bottom of a crime that police now say was occurring under their noses.

The person responsible for a crime is the person who commits the crime; the alleged actions of one member don't tarnish the reputation of the entire department. Yet several police officials and Mayor John Callahan are answerable for a systemic failing in the department, along with former Commissioner Randall Miller, who selected Ruth for promotion. (He's now Northampton County's sheriff).

The lingering question is not whether any subsequent punishment will fit the crime - if it's proven there was one. It is, instead, why someone accused of cashing in her public trust may continue to be rewarded as handsomely in retirement as those who served honorably and didn't steal from the taxpayers.

Who is being protected from whom?

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