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Thursday, Aug. 18, 2005 06:59 pm

One for the books

The city shows its tough side by humiliating a library scofflaw

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Nothing about last Thursday’s press conference was by the book. The announcement was hasty (less than an hour’s notice) yet the cast included the mayor, the police chief, two city attorneys, and the director of the Lincoln Library. Between the short notice and the long list of bigwigs, the sense of urgency was unmistakable.

The big news? Springfield Police Department had caught a library employee selling donated books on eBay. Lori Burger, a $28,570-a-year library assistant, confessed that she had taken about 2,000 books over the past 18 months and sold half of them on an eBay subsidiary. She immediately returned about a thousand books to the library, but the scandal made televised newscasts that night and was splashed across the front page of the daily paper on Friday morning.

I missed the big spectacle because I happened to take a late lunch just as the city sent notice of the press conference. But now I’m wondering if I missed some previous press conferences too — like the ones exposing Springfield firefighters and cops who pleaded guilty to driving drunk, or the big announcement last Christmas when a maintenance worker stole $11,000 from the credit union.

Oh wait — the mayor didn’t host a roast for any of those employees. This shindig ending Burger’s library career appears to be the first time city officials formally and publicly hung an employee out to dry.

Ernie Slottag, the city’s communications director, says Mayor Tim Davlin wanted everyone to know that he does not “allow those kinds of activities to occur in city government.” Asked why Davlin passed up similar opportunities, Slottag said such decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. “I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone charged with stealing books and selling them on eBay,” Slottag says. “That’s pretty unusual, don’t you think?”

He’s got a point. Even Burger admits that what she did was odd.

“I’m not your garden variety criminal, no I’m not,” she sighs. “I’m an idiot.”

Dragged into my office by her AFSCME rep (who is filing a grievance asking the city to resolve any future employee legal problems without public humiliation), Burger admits that she took some donated books and sold them on half.com, the fixed-price part of eBay.

But she says that, at the time, she didn’t realize it was wrong. “They were books that were not going to be added to the collection,” she says. In fact, many were destined for the gray Dumpster-size bin near the parking garage stairwell, where they would have been sent to a shredder.

Textbooks, for example, are routinely discarded by the library. “We try to discourage the donation of textbooks,” says library director Nancy Huntley.

Volumes that are damaged, dirty or moldy also get tossed. And book club editions of recent bestsellers don’t usually make it to the library shelves, Huntley confirms, because they tend to fall apart.

Back during the 2003 city budget crunch, Burger proposed helping the library increase revenue by selling unwanted donations online. “I thought that idea might take some investigation,” Huntley recalls. When the budget crisis evaporated, the proposal was shelved.

So Burger eventually tried it herself. “I’m not saying I was innocent in all this. I’m guilty,” she says. “I took some donations.”

However, she insists that she didn’t steal all the books she sold on half.com. Some books she bought from the library. Others she purchased online or at yard sales or Goodwill. But Burger can’t prove it.

“Who the hell gets a receipt from a yard sale?” she asks.

If she hadn’t taken the books, they would have gone to the library’s used bookstore (where prices range from $2 for any hardback down to 50 cents per paperback), or to the Friends of the Library sale, where prices are even lower. Instead, Burger sold them for the standard lowest rate on half.com, earning, by her own estimate, slightly more than $10,000.

SPD detective Matt Madonia, whose computer expertise turned an anonymous tip into a Class 3 felony charge against Burger, says Burger has no previous criminal record. When he went to her home, he realized she wasn’t living a lavish lifestyle.

“One of the things we look for is are they stealing to support a drug habit,” Madonia says. Burger has a different weakness: “She had a house full of books.”

Burger, 31, and her truck-driver husband live in Modesto (population 252), near her uninsured, medically fragile parents, who count on her for help with hospital bills, groceries, and daily life. “Books are my coping mechanism. They’re my weekend,” she says. Her college degree is in British and American literature.

She confessed and returned all the books in a vain hope that she might somehow be allowed to keep the job she loves. “That’s the hardest thing of all this. I love the library,” she says. “I had no intentions of hurting anybody there.”

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