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Restoring public trust in county government

The sentencing of 50-year-old Thomas Jefferson Fraser IV last week on a charge of grand theft was significant.

Not because the defendant, despite his guilty plea, insisted that he really had no criminal intent and that “vendettas” by fellow employees were what got him in trouble.

Not because emotions at the Tuolumne County Superior Court hearing were high, and that friends and family members vigorously defended Fraser.

And not even because Fraser escaped without a day of jail time, even though losses for which he was responsible were set by the county at $22,000.

What was significant about this theft and embezzlement case was that we, the taxpayers of Tuolumne County, were the victims. It was our goods and services that the dismissed former road operations supervisor stole in a series of criminal actions that spanned nearly a decade.

According to court records, Fraser picked up hay for his own business on our time, used our equipment for work on his own property and used our staff members to do personal work — including burying his own dead horses on our property.

County Administrator Craig Pedro, with 24 years of service here, said he knows of no other case having even close to this “breadth of misuse of county time, labor, equipment, materials and property.”

Pedro’s remarks were part of a three-page “impact statement” detailing county losses.

He bristles at the notion, held by some, that county workers are quick to look the other way when one of their own crosses moral lines, that a permissive “culture” exists in some departments that all but encourages theft, and that a “good ol’ boy network” protects violators from consequences.

 “All of us who serve in government are expected to be honest, hardworking and trustworthy stewards of the work and resources entrusted to us,” he told Superior Court Judge Eleanor Provost. “Mr. Fraser knowingly and blatantly violated the public’s trust.”

And Pedro makes it clear that the losses go far beyond dollars and cents.

“He has also done great damage to the standards of professionalism and ethics within the county organization,” the administrator wrote. “Such behavior is wrong, will not be tolerated and those who conduct themselves in such a manner will be held accountable.”

Pedro goes further, pledging to “do my part to establish an environment that appreciates the high position of trust the public has placed with each of us in public service, and set clear ethical standards.”

Pedro and Assistant District Attorney Mike Knowles encouraged both county employees and members of the public to report such behavior. “No one should think this is business as usual,” said Knowles after the sentencing hearing. “They should expect something to be done about it.”

Judge Provost, citing Fraser’s previously clean record, gave him no jail time. But her sentence was stiff: Forty-five days of work-release, 500 hours of community service and payment of $10,000 in restitution.

“This is wrong,” she said. “It’s no cultural thing, it’s not a vendetta, it’s just wrong.”

The outrage and indignation expressed by our public officials on behalf of constituents and of the honest employees who make up the overwhelming majority of the county workforce was gratifying. So was their intolerance for those who would violate the public’s trust.

Their words made it clear that we are not in Chicago or some other machine-run city where such crimes might rate no more than a shrug.

As victims of Thomas Fraser’s wrongdoing, we taxpayers were well represented in court last week.

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