Robbing the poor hurts us all

The following editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News on Jan. 28:

Bank robber Willie Sutton was said to explain his penchant for robbing banks back in the 1920s and 1930s “because that’s where the money is.”

A modern-day Sutton might use the same excuse for being a public servant or working in nonprofits:

That’s where the money is.

Wednesday’s 53-count indictment of Renee Tartaglione for allegedly stealing public money from a nonprofit mental health clinic whose primary clients are poor is another sickening chapter in … well, we’re not sure what book it is: Nonprofit abuse? Contempt for humanity? A corrupt political machine?

Tartaglione is accused of buying up buildings occupied by Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic and then spiking their rents — one from $4,800 a month to $25,000 a month, and another where she charged $75,000 a month rent, all while serving as the clinic’s board president. (She served on that board while still working for her mother, then-City Commissioner Marge Tartaglione; she was forced to resign when she violated a city charter ban on political activity for city employees.)

Sutton was a bit of a folk hero, daring in his heists and in his prison escapes (including a dramatic one from Holmesburg Prison). Adding to his legend: No one loved the banks he robbed, as institutions or as symbols of wealth and power.

But robbing a nonprofit, as Tartaglione is accused of doing, is about as low as you can go. For one thing, the people hurt are often poor and without options — in Juniata’s case, they’re poor and troubled.

Most nonprofits run on a shoestring, dedicated to doing good work. But often, lack of oversight or accountability leads to temptation for unscrupulous operators. In the last two years, two notable cases were uncovered by the Philadelphia Inspector General’s office, which initiated the Tartaglione investigation. The executive director of Hunting Park Neighborhood Advisory Committee was accused of stealing $90,000 from that organization, and two executives from Self Inc., which operates homeless shelters in the city, were accused of spending $350,000 on themselves.

And we all know the saga of Citizens Alliance, the organization founded by former Sen. Vince Fumo, who served four years in a Kentucky prison camp for raiding the till of that nonprofit.

There should be plenty of outrage for those who steal from the poor, homeless and troubled. But how about the fact they’re also stealing from us? Nonprofits are usually funded with government money … or, rather, with taxpayer money. That means that instead of robbing banks, people who steal from nonprofits are stealing from us. The parochial school you wanted to send your child to but couldn’t scrape the money together because your taxes are so high? The extra shoes, or food, or heat you would have liked to afford but couldn’t? Blame the modern-day Willie Suttons, whose criminal selfishness have robbed us all.

This behavior is outrageous in a city with as many challenges as Philadelphia; people who can’t afford to eat, or have a roof over their heads, turn to nonprofit services for help. Every dime that is misspent or stolen is another person not being helped — and another thing you might need, but can’t afford to buy.


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