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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: The Mystery Man

From Washington Lawyer, March 2009

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

In the department of … perhaps, it is better not to name the department. It will be better for us to designate the department in question as a certain department. In that certain department there was a certain official, an Inspector General, who had no background as a prosecutor or investigator. He had no political connections with prominent personages. He was neither a lawyer nor an accountant. He had no cell phone. He saw no need to have two press agents.

A week after his appointment, he met with his staff. He asked each to introduce him- or herself and give a background sketch. Each had substantial experience in criminal prosecutions and investigations.

When the introductions were concluded, this mystery man (that is what his employees called him behind his back) said that his appointment came to him as a surprise. He did not know who sponsored him. All he knew was he had a six-month job and, thereafter, he would return from whence he came.

I am trimming the budget. The budget is much too large. Cutting it back will keep us from wasting time investigating defenseless people who violate meaningless regulations. Is there not a RAND study declaring that we have more criminal laws, regulations, rules, and rules on rules than any government in the history of the world? The more laws, the more offenders, the more work, the bigger the budget. The laws that are needed are smothered or, better yet, suffocated by those that are needless.
With all these rules an Inspector General with a big budget could easily pin a violation on just about anybody, innocent or guilty.
We’ll use our spare time to do some reading on the job. Let’s start with Nikolai Gogol’s short story, The Overcoat, and his play, The Government Inspector. After that we will read Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. Better yet, let’s get the movie and watch Humphrey Bogart playing Captain Queeg. We will discuss this at our next meeting.
Do not try and figure out my political interests and then do something that you think a person with my political interest would like done. I understand that people with a prosecutorial or investigatory bent often spend their time investigating the people they work with. I can save you the trouble. I’m investigating myself.

The staff did not know what to make of their new Inspector General. However, when they looked over their case files, they found that two-thirds of their cases, when you came right down to it, were petty cases, make-work projects, inquiring into other people’s personal lives.

The real cases, the cases that required careful study, wisdom, insight, proportionality, and, heaven forbid, compassion, were sitting on the window sills.

After the first monthly meeting, the work went smoothly. The staff nipped in the bud Ponzi schemes, pyramid schemes, and other significant bad acts.

The mystery man opened the second monthly meeting by announcing that one of the staff had resigned. Unknown to the mystery man, this person, who had the praiseworthy custom of attacking those who cannot bite back, was in communication with his brother-in-law, a prominent personage. This person informed the prominent personage about what the Inspector General was doing, especially reducing the budget. The prominent personage advised his informant to resign so he would not be tainted. At the proper time the present Inspector General would be exposed and removed to make way for the informant.

The Inspector General said he would like someone on the staff to find the author of each of these quotations:

The least thing is seen as the center of a network of relationships that the investigator cannot restrain himself from following, multiplying the details, so that his descriptions and digressions become infinite. Whatever the starting point, the matter in hand spreads out and out, encompassing ever vaster horizons, and if it were permitted to go further and further in every direction, it would end by embracing the entire universe.
***
Guilt and crimes are so frequent in the world that all of them cannot be punished. Many times they happen in such a manner that it is not of much consequence to the public whether they are punished or not.

The Inspector General opened the third monthly meeting with these words: “I see we have completed eight cases that were over a year old. You know I like this job. I like giving orders. I must confess I like power. I am beginning to see why everybody else likes it.”

As his last month approached, the people in the office decided to present an award to the Inspector General. What could they give him? He did not collect things. He lived alone. His interests were his work and reading.

While the committee was in the process of the award meeting with the Inspector General concerning an award, two men appeared in the Inspector General’s office. They said they were there on important business, and they wished to speak alone to the Inspector General. They closed the door and were with the Inspector General for 10 minutes. When the door opened, the Inspector General said he must attend to important matters with these two men. He did not know when he would be back.

He never did come back. The people in the Inspector General’s office learned two weeks later that he had been returned to the mental institution from which he escaped six months earlier.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.com.