EDITORIAL: In the age of the scam, why are Alaska’s leaders falling prey so often?

These days, everywhere you turn, it seems like someone’s trying to pull one over on you: Nigerian princes in your email inbox, asking for your help with their stranded millions. Phony Alaska State Troopers on the phone threatening you with arrest if you don’t buy them gift cards from the grocery store. And a distressing number of people willing to make up job experience, nonprofit organizations, businesses and even whole résumés — as well as bilking their way into cushy jobs and contracts.

In just the past week, a pair of incidents proved the need for our leaders to be less credulous. First, Jeremy Cubas, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s policy adviser on “pro-family” issues was exposed for making abhorrent statements denying the possibility of marital rape, finding common ground with Adolf Hitler on ethnic segregation and gleefully throwing out racial slurs. The very next day, it came out that the Anchorage Assembly had granted $1.6 million in COVID-19 homeless aid to a nonprofit whose operator, Rosalina Mavaega, was investigated for health-care-related fraud and barred from receiving Medicare or Medicaid funds — and who is now under investigation again, this time by the Internal Revenue Service.

Cubas and Mavaega are far from the only recent examples of shady operators who, by all rights, should have been red-flagged before receiving public funds. Last year, Anchorage Health Director Joe Gerace was found to have fabricated massive portions of his résumé related to work experience, education and military service — after he had already been in his six-figure position for a full year overseeing the city’s response to a pandemic and a homelessness crisis. And schemes related to fraudulent applications for COVID-19 funds have played out on a national level as well — government watchdog agencies estimate that $80 billion of the funds distributed in the early-pandemic Paycheck Protection Program bailout went to fraudulent applicants, on top of between $90 billion and $400 billion in COVID unemployment relief fraud.

What might be worst about these frauds that bilk public money is just how easy they are to spot in many cases. The podcast where Cubas engaged in flagrant hate speech appears on the first page of Google search results for his name. An Alaska court records search for Mavaega turns up several civil suits related to her business activities that would set off alarm bells for anyone who came across them. And any attempt to verify the fabricated portions of Gerace’s résumé would have exposed his lies — as happened when a reporter made those calls after the Municipality’s Human Resources department failed to do so.

Anyone can get scammed, but our leaders owe it to us to not be such easy marks when taxpayer money is on the line. The line given by those who defend the failure to exercise due diligence that led to widespread COVID aid fraud is often that it was a crisis and we couldn’t afford to verify that applicants were on the level. To that, we respond that when public money and public trust are involved, we can’t afford not to.

Whether at the level of the Municipality, the state or federal governments, our leaders owe it to us to check and double-check that we’re not handing our money over to bad actors. The success of fraud breeds more fraud, and these scams are successful far too often. To the public servants who are in a position to do so: Check résumés. Look at social media posts. Search court records. Treat the vetting of potential hires, grant recipients and contractors with the seriousness it deserves. Because the more our leaders fail at doing their job of ensuring public money only flows to deserving entities, the more the public will ask why they remain our leaders. Yes, things have moved quickly the past few years, but that’s all the more reason for our leaders — at every level and in every branch of government — to perform the kind of diligence taxpayers expect and deserve when expending public money.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.