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Sometimes, we who work in the public sector – at all levels – can get very tired of all the bureaucracy that we have to deal with on a daily basis. We can get frustrated with all the layers of approval that we have to interact with just to get something productive done. At the end of the day, we may often feel like a hockey player checked hard into the boards by all the checks and balances that are in place in our agency.

However, as Max Weber pointed out long ago, there is a rationality that lies at the heart of the bureaucratic concept, and that is why it works for government agencies and other large organizations. While some administrations and individual administrators may go “turbo” on their administrative actions, public sector organizations “work” for the public precisely because there is accountability baked into the system of management.

Occasionally though, we all need a reminder of why we have the hoops, the approvals, the audit trails. etc. in place that are part of the experience of working in the public sector. And so if your team needs a little wake-up call in this regard, you need to share this of the “The Great Texas Fajita Bandit” with them!

Gilberto Escamilla was a 53 year-old correctional officer at the Darrel B. Hester Juvenile Detention Center in Cameron County, Texas, just outside of Brownsville. For 9 years, he pulled-off a scheme that Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz observed that  “if it wasn’t so serious, you’d think it was a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit.” And it was ingenious, and it worked – netting Escamilia over $1.2 million dollars over almost a decade – until he happened to go to the doctor on the wrong day – for his sake.

Escamilla’s scheme was a no-brainer – sell meat to local restaurants and vendors for which he paid nothing, as he ordered it on behalf of the correctional center and simply took it to sell to his “customers.” Over the course of 9 years, Escamilla sold untold number of pounds of meat this way – netting a tidy profit (well, it was ALL profit) that totaled – drumroll please – $1,251,578!

How was this master criminal’s plan unmasked? If only he had not taken-off August 7th last year, Mr. Escamilla’s gravy train might have continued for a long time. However, he took that day off to go to a doctor’s appointment. And as happenstance worked, a representative for Labatt Food Service, the county’s juvenile correctional center’s meat vendor, made a routine call to confirm an order that their driver was preparing to deliver to the facility with one item –   800 pounds of fajitas. The employee taking the call for Escamilla in his absence thought something was amiss, as the facility didn’t have fajitas on the menu for its “residents.” When the matter was brought to the attention of Escamilla’s supervisor, the company revealed that they had been delivering fajitas to the correctional center for nine years. That’s when the alarm bells went off in the county administration, and the “irregularity” was reported to the Cameron County D.A.  office’s special investigations unit. When he showed up for work the next day, Escamilla was confronted about the fajita order and spilled the beans, admitting to stealing fajitas over the past decade! He was fired from his position and placed under arrest the next day. To date, two major buyers of his ill-gotten meat have been identified and cooperated with the investigation, but when Escamilla’s personal home was searched, needless to say, his fridge was stocked with fajitas!

To his credit, Mr. Escamilla admitted his theft of fajitas – and a whole lot more meat from the county – when the case recently came-up for trial! He plead guilty to the theft, and in his elocution, Escamilla tearful;ly testified that: “It was selfish. It started small and got bigger and out of control,“It got to the point where I couldn’t control it anymore.” However, Judge J. Manuel Banales almost literally threw the book – or the menu – at the former county employee, sentencing him to 50 years in jail for the first-degree theft. The district attorney wanted to send a strong message with the sentence – and with no prior criminal record, no one can argue that the sentence did send just that. As one would fully expect, county officials have vowed to strengthen the oversight of procurement in the wake of this fajita scandal.

So what should we take away from this story of The Great Texas Fajita Bandit? Certainly, while one might snicker at the facts of the case (which has made it a top trending story on social media), this should certainly be a cautionary tale for all public sector agencies. Do you have gaping holes in your processes that can be exploited? If you think not, you might want to really reexamine things, as you may not realize what may be going on right under your nose – especially if fajitas aren’t on the menu!

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