Daily Press editorial hits the nail on the head

At long last, the City of Hampton has completed its internal investigation of the Hampton Police Division's undercover cigarette trafficking operation.

The results of the investigation were reported Thursday in a written summary of findings. City Manager Mary Bunting also issued a statement "to Hampton residents," in which she reviews the City's actions over the past year. We applaud Ms. Bunting for posting a video version on the city website, the modern format for a fireside chat. We suspect many in Hampton appreciate that their top administrator took the time to share her thoughts directly on a matter of such public importance.

In her statement, Ms. Bunting makes several points worthy of reflection and response.

•She says "Hampton officials" had been investigating the facts for six months before the Daily Press "broke" the story and started asking questions. According to Ms. Bunting, the city hadn't planned on revealing any information until it had finished its investigation, and the doggedness of our reporting was the reason for the City's "mistake" of releasing partial information that later turned out to be incorrect. (She cites the misstatement that there had been an audit" of the sting's financial operations.)

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•Ms. Bunting implies that if the media had been patient, the investigation would have been revealed in due course. When? The Hampton Police Division is capable of solving homicides in less than six months — and that's often despite hostile witnesses and uncooperative suspects. This investigation, however, involved law-abiding police officers and facts that had already been reported by the State Police. The City already knew there were inadequate financial protocols in place for the sting operation and that regular City of Hampton accounting procedures had not been not followed.

Why did it take from June to November to investigate and report this?

•If "Hampton officials" really had been investigating the matter for six months, why wasn't the City Council notified until August? Who exactly were these "Hampton officials" that knew about the financial problems but didn't advise the legislative body charged with oversight of city funds?

•Finally, Ms. Bunting is quite critical of "the media" and states "there has been way too much attention to one operation."

Yet this "one operation" is an undercover sting that may not even be allowed in Virginia — an operation she was "shocked" to learn involved "the failure of those involved in this operation to follow normal HPD practices." She's right; a secret churning operation involving more than $3 million flowing in and out of a city account without property accountability is indeed shocking. Even more reason for the public to know whatever city officials know when they know it, and not wait for a mired-down investigation that can eventually be neatly packaged with accompanying press releases.

Ms. Bunting is understandably shaken by the blemish this case may leave on an otherwise upstanding department of hard-working officers. As we wrote just a few days ago, the problem is not with the officers. It's not even with occasional missteps that must be corrected.

The problem is this: If the City of Hampton insists on treating the public like distant supplicants on a need-to-know basis about their city's business, there follows a natural and logical perception that it cares more about controlling spin than keeping the public informed.

Every public institution or governmental unit probably wishes it could control unflattering information that surfaces from its operations from time to time. But mistakes happen, and if an institution is strong and otherwise respected by the public, it will outlast the turmoil and, one hopes, learn from those mistakes. In just about every type of relationship, whether personal or institutional, people are more likely to forgive mistakes promptly and openly acknowledged than attempts to conceal them.

In the words of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-New York, "secrecy is a form of government regulation."

A government that keeps secrets is not accountable. That is why we must never grow lax about the right to information about the City of Hampton's or any other locality's business. And that is why the Daily Press will continue to ask the tough questions, dig into the records and report to our readers what we find.

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