A MODEL PITBLIC OFFICE. T HERE is always a charm about
novelty of any sort, and it is therefore not without a certain pleasure that we invite attention to the interior arrangements of a public office whose fault seems to have been that it was really too simple. Of course we allude to the Office of the Commissioners of Patents, which was organized by their Clerk, Mr. Leonard Edmunds, in 1852, in consequence, apparently, of the brilliant success with which he had managed the office of Clerk of the Patents -since 1833. We all know what Government offices in general are,—the useless formalities, the pedantry, the incivility with which the British citizen meets when he is forced into those dens of lions. One office, however, there was which always "worked well and smoothly," of which no sort of complaint has ever been made by any one having business in the office, of which the gifted organizer can assert that "no person can be found who will venture to_state one single instance of difficulty, delay, or misconduct in any one particular." A desire therefore naturally arises in the inquiring mind to find out how this admirable result was attained, and to hold it up as an example to less successful branches of the public service. One asks, why does not the War Office send for Mr. Edmunds? He would organize them in less than no time. But the envy and jealousy of public officials seem unhappily to be very great. Unlike the public, the Patent-Office clerks were blind to Mr. Edinunds's merits, and they and he quarrelled dreadfully. I At last the Chancellor and Commissioners of Patents had to appoint the Solicitor to the Treasury and Mr. Ilindmarch, both Queen's Counsel, to inquire into the dispute, to which they very soon became parties. We do not say this could have been avoided, for indeed Mr. Edmunds seems to us to be a gentleman of very commanding disposition, and when he was asked inconvenient questions to have thought a quarrel would be the best excuse for refusing to answer. At all events, after the Commissioners had sent in a very unfavour- able preliminary report he did refuse to attend them any more, and the result is that the final report rests on evidence to which he has not yet sent in his answer. But without fully accepting the conclusions of the report which impeach Mr. Edmunds's integrity, enough is shown by his answer to the preliminary report, the reports themselves, and the evi- dence, to enable us to understand the arrangements by which this quite unprecedented smoothness of working was attained. And as brilliant results are best studied in their origin, we shall make no apology for goink back to Mr. Edmunds's first appointment to be Clerk of the Patents. He was appointed in the year 1833. His duties were to prepare certain instruments, which passed the Great Seal, and on these he received certain fees, which he was bound by statute to pay into the Exchequer at the end of every quarter. He also received certain other fees payable to the Suitors' Fee Fund, and these also he was bound by statute to pay into the Bank of England, to the credit of the Accountant-General, at the end of each quarter. For these duties he was to be paid a salary of 250/., and he was further allowed 150/. for the expenses of his office. Mr. Edmunds had therefore to organize his office, and the device he hit on was as simple as beautiful. He handed over the duties to Mr. Thomas Ruscoe, and he kept the whole 400/. for himself. It was clear, however, that Mr. Ruscoe must be paid in some way, and it was effected thus. He appointed his uncle, a law stationer, to do the work of the office, and also to act as its banker. To this uncle Mr. Pascoe, who received all the fees, transferred them, and he was credited with them in an account kept by the uncle, • and headed "Tom's Account." Mr. Ruscoe, however, had to get the documents he prepared stamped, and the public were required to pay the money for the stamps in advance. This money, too, was paid into "Tom's Account," and the uncle used to buy the stamps at Somerset House and obtain the stationer's discount. This, less the office expenses, was about 50/., and in the main formed Mr. Ruscoe's remuneration, and we thus see how that eminent organizer, Mr. Edmunds, not only managed to have no duties, but even no expenses. What cannot genius do? In 1845, however, the discount on stamps had increased to such an amount that Mr. Edmunds thought himself entitled to a share, and accordingly he made Mr. Ruscoe allow him 100/. a year, so that his clerk was actually paying him for being per- mitted to do the work. And this arrangement might have endured till now, if the Legislature had not in 1849 abolished the discount on stamps of 10/. and upwards. Mr. Edmunds met this in a proper spirit. He did not surrender the 100/., but remarked that if Government had allowed so absurd an Act to be passed, and had thus themselves obtained the dis- counts, it was only proper that an equivalent should be taken out of the fees payable to the Exchequer; and accordingly he authorized Mr. Ruscoe to retain about 50/. a year. This, however, seems to rest on Mr. Ruscoe's evi- dence only. But even before this, something of the same sort had become necessary in order to meet the expenses of the office, and it was effected in this way. From the fees payable on each skin of parchment on which the instruments prepared in the office were engrossed Mr. Ruscoe deducted 12s. 10d.— not on the face of the books, but tacitly. Thus, if the fee paid was 6/. 8s. 4d., he sat down quickly and wrote Si. 15s. 6d. This commenced when Mr. Edmunds began to receive 100/. per annum from the discounts, and Mr. Ruscoe in that gentleman's presence stated that he made the deduc- tion by his authority. Thus this great organizer managed to keep his salary of 2501.—to pocket the 150/. allowed for office expenses and defray them from public money—and finally, by the discounts to make another 100/. a year and pay his clerk, who did all the work. And it is all so simple. So was the book-keeping. Mr. Ruscoe seems to have kept first a docquet book, which is a chronological list of the docu- ments prepared in the office. As the amount of the fees pay- able on each is known, of course the amount received may be computed from this. Secondly, he kept a fee book, or at least he only omitted to keep one from 1852 to 1857. The Commissioners say they can get no sufficient reason for this omission. May it not have been a struggle for even greater simplicity? Lastly, there were two account books commencing
in 1842, and containing quarterly accounts till 1852 and after- wards yearly accounts, between Mr. Edmunds and Mr. Ruscoe. There were no others.
As between Mr. Ruscoe and Mr. Edmunds the arrangements were equally simple. The latter gentleman had two accounts at Coutts and Co.'s—a private and a Patent-Office account. Quarterly, as we have said, till 1852, and since then yearly, Mr. Ruscoe sent Mr. Edmunds an account of his receipts, and he paid the amount shown to be due from him into Mr. Edmunds's Patent-Office account. He also pointed out the amount which was due to the Exchequer and the amount which was due to the Suitors' Fee Fund ; and at the same time he sent engrossments of the affidavits verifying these amounts for the Treasury and the Accountant-General. There of course Mr. Ruscoe's duty ended.
It was on this simple foundation that Mr. Edmunds built in 1852. He was then appointed Clerk to the Commissioners of Patents, with an additional salary of 600/. He felt that he could not improve on what he had already effected, and so far as money matters were concerned he left the fabric he had created alone. Mr. Ruscoe became cashier with a good salary, and the receipts of the office found their way to "Tom's Ac- count," or what now represented it under some more decorous name. The old Patent business was transacted as before, and the new business, that of Patents for inventions, at least without further malversation. It is, however, impossible to avoid some notice of Mr. Edmunds's own conduct. We do not wish to determine the exact amount of his culpability. Some excuse may be found in the fact that of the 400/. a year salary of the clerkship of the Patents, three-fourths were pay- able in one form or another to Mr. William Brougham. Mr. Edmunds, we believe, still denies his liability to refund the sums received by himself and Mr. Ruscoe for discounts, and for the 12s. 10d. per skin deducted from the receipts by his authority. On what possible ground we do not pre- tend to understand, for even the money which he ad- vanced to Mr. RUBCOe for the purchase of stamps was pub- lic money, and the profit earned by it would therefore seem the property of the public. The 12s. 10d. was taken secretly and in the teeth of an Act of Parliament. And we must add with pain that the Commissioners seem to us justified in saying that they had to extort the facts from Mr. Edmunds and Mr. Ranee, who would therefore seem to have been conscious that they were not altogether creditable facts. Still these sums were taken under a pretence of right, and as they amount together to 8,165/., the balance claimed by the Treasury from Mr. Edmunds is only 892/. for the Exchequer, and 92/. for the Suitors' Fee Fund. The original claim for this last was 560/., but Mr. Edmunds has shown this to be a blander of the Accountant-General's office, as that officer admits. There may be other errors in the accounts prepared under the direction of the Commissioners, and as the accounts extend over thirty years, and a quarter of a million has passed through the office, a deficiency of 9841. spread over the whole period allows of a charitable construction. At least we may be content to wait the final settlement of the account.
But if it is possible to hope that Mr. Edmunds was not in intention dishonest, it cannot be denied that he has done (even waiving the question raised by the discounts and the 12s. 10d.) what is generally to be attributed to dishonesty. He was bound by statute to pay over his receipts quarterly. He has never done it. The smaller sums due to the Suitors' Fee Fund have been paid over yearly only, and at least on one occasion about 2001. was retained for upwards of a year or more. The larger sums due to the Exchequer have been systematically kept back. Down to the 9th August, 1852, he did pay at irregular intervals large sums into the Exchequer, but he has
never verified the amounts by affidavit, and after the 9th August, 1852, he never paid anything at all, until after the preliminary report of the Commissioners had been sent into the Treasury. Then in September last he paid in no less than 7,872/.—of which apparently 250/. has been due since 1839,
1,450/. since 1844, and 5401 since 1849. This retention Mr. Edmunds admits, and indeed it cannot be denied, but he pleads that he had no evil purpose, for he kept the money in a separate account, and has paid it over at last. Unfortunately, however, he did not. The balance lying at Coutts's to the credit of the Patent Office account has always been far less than the amount due to the public, and even now 891/. is claimed by the Exchequer which has not been paid. He may not have intended to defraud the public ultimately, but he kept public money in his hands in order that he might borrow from it from time to time at his convenience, and he did borrow from it. All this he did, and in defiance of an Act of Parliament, and without the knowledge even of Hr. Ruscoe. This in the case
of a bank clerk is called embezzlement, and even a trustee who does it commits a breach of trust criminally punishable. The repayment of the money borrowed in no way wipes out the crime. Mr. Anthony Trollope's novels are not famous for good law, but even Mr. Trollope knows that, as his story of The Three Clerics proves. It is really hard to believe that a public officer, holding very lucrative offices under the pro- visions of statutes of the realm, did not know it also.
The conclusion of the matter seems to be that a public office may be too simple, and that its working "well and smoothly" does not prove much. It is better for the public to be bullied than pillaged, and those smooth currents are apt to be dangerous and deep. But there is also another question to be asked. Here is a gentleman ordered by statute to pay money quarterly to the Accountant-General. For thirty years he pays yearly and the Accountant-General never stirs. He is also ordered by statute to pay money into the Exchequer quarterly. He pays just when he pleases for twenty years, and then leaves off paying altogether for ten. He was ordered by the Treasury in 1834 to send them regularly an affidavit val.. fying the amount paid in to the Exchequer and the Exchequer receipt. He did it once in August, 1834, and has never done it since. The Treasury has never even remonstrated, and ap- parently never even observed it. Why on earth does any one ever pay anything into the Exchequer? Just fancy a private gentleman who, when his agent deputed to receive money for him pays nothing for ten years, should actually not observe it, and only find it out accidentally. Fancy never asking for an account for thirty years. Yet this has been the conduct of the Treasury, and nobody seems to see anything at all ex- traordinary in it. What the Audit Office can find to do passes imagination, except that the whole thirty years comes on them at last, unless the official has become a defaulter and insolvent in the meantime. Perhaps they find it cheaper to "take a quantity" of auditing from each public servant. We very much fear the Treasury wants simplifying, and as Mr. Edmunds is now "out of place," Mr. Gladstone had better send for the great creature, and get him to re-organize the receipt of custom.