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There’s an old saying about why public officials so often misuse taxpayer funds: “It’s easy to spend other peoples’ money.” And wow, seems like on both a national and state level, the ease with which our public “servants” abuse taxpayer money is now epidemic.

Thanks to the Legislative Auditor's investigation, it was revealed that Corey Stapleton, who has stumbled his way through his term as secretary of state, was regularly taking a large state truck to drive to Billings — in violation of state law. His office has claimed he was “tele-working,” which, I guess, means he was putting in his eight hours on his cell phone when he was supposed to be in his Helena office. And the 27,000 miles he put on the truck that taxpayers bought, maintained and kept full of gas? Surely Montanans will understand the importance of this small sacrifice to obtain such valuable “service” from Stapleton.

Or how about Attorney General Tim Fox deciding to take a staffer along and fly down to the Mexican border so he could see what he believes is the source of drugs coming into Montana? There’s not a thing he could do about federal border security one way or another. But hey, the public picks up the tab for the flight and other expenses, so why not take the opportunity to garner some press and put the “mission” on his campaign website — which is exactly what he did. Mind you, the same week Fox was flying to the Mexican border, the largest drug bust in the nation’s history confiscated an estimated $1 billion in cocaine from a ship in Philadelphia, not Mexico.

Then there’s Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian, who was popped by the Legislative Auditor’s Office for excessive spending on himself and staff of the Board of Regents on hotel rooms, catered meals, tickets for Griz-Cat games and flights to England, Denver and eastern Montana. As the reported by the Missoulian: “During Fiscal Year 2018, office staff and members of the university system’s governing Board of Regents racked up thousands of dollars’ worth of spending that violated state policies and constituted ‘abuse of General Fund resources.’” It’s worth recalling that just last year Christian got a raise in his salary to a whopping $320,122 annually, which Montana taxpayers must certainly understand is not nearly enough to personally cover the cost of his flights and flings.

Meanwhile, Steve Bullock, our “governor in absentia,” was once again in New Hampshire last week after spending days campaigning in Iowa. Thursday is what’s generally considered a “work day” in most jobs, but Bullock was chasing his presidential pipe-dream, despite not having enough support to even make the 20-person debate stage of Democratic presidential hopefuls. But don’t fret, Montanans; as Bullock told reporters: “Even though I’m not on that debate stage, I’m in the first-in-the-nation primary (state) and the folks of New Hampshire are the ones that are going to decide this election, not necessarily the debates.”

Add to these the stunning array of criminals shuffling in and out of the Trump administration at a stunning rate for spending and ethical abuses that pale in comparison to their boss, whose golf trips alone have cost taxpayers over $100 million.

This isn’t how “public servants” are supposed to conduct themselves. It’s far past time to drag their greedy hands out of the public till and treat the taxpayers’ money for what it is — a sacred trust paid for by hard-working citizens — not a personal slush fund to be robbed at will.

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George Ochenski writes from Helena. His column appears each Monday on the Missoulian's Opinion page. He can be reached by email at oped@missoulian.com.

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