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Watchdog's role

Colonel cleared, but expenses rightly questioned

Community members who stepped up to defend Col. David Augustine after a whistleblower accused him of carelessly spending public funds were right when they spoke to his good character and intentions. An independent inquiry has cleared the commander of Fort Wayne’s 122nd Fighter Wing of any wrongdoing in spending nearly $200,000 in base funds.

What the inquiry doesn’t address, however, is a perception that the money he spent might not be an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. Should the Air National Guard spend $39,000 on holiday parties? Is it necessary and appropriate to send 85 airmen through Dale Carnegie training at $1,000 each?

At a time when the military is undergoing cost-cutting, right-sizing and furloughs, it’s appropriate to ask whether the commander should have spent $30,000 on personal office renovations.

Maj. Gen. Martin Umbarger, Indiana adjutant general, made it clear during a news conference last week that charges filed by an anonymous complainant in May were not substantiated.

But while he noted that some of the spending figures were exaggerated, he didn’t dispute that Augustine authorized spending on the costly holiday parties, off-site seminars, a $48,000 neon sign for the base and travel expenses for an English artist commissioned to do paintings of the base. The expenditures, he said, were common and acceptable practices at military bases.

That’s the point that should bother taxpayers. Why should the military follow spending practices that would be unacceptable in any other public setting?

In 2005, Gov. Mitch Daniels decided $2,000 rocking chairs at the state developmental centers were too extravagant and he sold them on eBay. In 2011, the director of the Hoosier Lottery quickly resigned after taxpayers learned of lavish accommodations there.

Make no mistake: the 122nd Fighter Wing serves an important role in northeast Indiana, and Augustine’s efforts to connect with the community are appreciated. The commander’s advocacy for the air base is admirable.

That said, just because spending for parties and office décor is allowed, doesn’t make it right. The Air National Guard’s case for preserving its presence here and in other cities is stronger, in fact, if it demonstrates responsibility to taxpayers along with its devotion to service.

Even as Rep. Marlin Stutzman and Sens. Joe Donnelly and Dan Coats fight to maintain a Guard presence here, they can best serve taxpayers by insisting that military spending here and elsewhere is essential to the mission.