How do you clear a guilty conscience?
For one American, it meant repaying his debts by returning $US0.09 to the US Treasury. For another, it meant sending the government $US155,502.
And we don’t know what they did because it was all done anonymously.
For more than 200 years, the Treasury has had a place for those with gnawing guilt to send cash and perhaps absolve them of their sins.
It’s known as the Conscience Fund.
Some people are surprised to learn about the fund, Ryan Hanna, one of the fund’s managers, told Business Insider. Hanna is one of 2,000 people based out of the Treasury’s office in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where people can send their remittance.
People have donated because they have stolen supplies while in the military, withheld payments to the IRS, or just found cash lying on the street — all because the thought of keeping someone else’s money burned a hole in their conscience.
“When we have new employees and they start looking at the list of the accounts we manage,” Hanna added, “they see the description and a lot of times they will ask ‘What’s that for?'”
It all began in 1811, when a donor sent $US5 to the Treasury, then under the Madison Administration. The fund was authorised in 1950, and the Conscience Fund has served as the home for anonymous remittances since.
The fund doesn’t usually pursue people for their crimes, but it does send thank-you notes.
People send donations anonymously by sending in a money order or a cashier’s check; by sending money through relatives or attorneys; or by stuffing cash into an envelope.
Even when the largest donation was made, in 1990, in the amount of $US155,502, the Treasury accepted the money without question.
Hanna and Walcutt couldn’t comment on the total value of donations since the Conscience Fund began. But a 1987 New York Times article put the value at more than $US5.7 million at the time.
Montgomery said the money the fund receives ends up in the Treasury’s general account under “miscellaneous receipts.” It’s used for general expenses.
But the fund has received a lot less in recent years, with $US1.1 million in donations in 2014 and $US427,000 in 2015.
By 2016, it had fallen to just $US23,000, and, to date, in 2017 (about halfway through the fiscal year) it has seen just one donation, in the amount of $US1,600.
Pew Research data has found that trust in the federal government is at historically low levels since 1958, although neither Hanna nor Walcutt wanted to speculate that trust was necessarily correlated with falling conscience-fund donations, which “vary widely” from year to year, Hanna said.
Both said the decline probably doesn’t put the fund in jeopardy of getting dismantled. “I don’t know that there would ever been an initiative to get rid of it,” Hanna said.
Donations have ranged in size over the fund’s 206-year existence. Most are under $US100. The smallest was for those nine cents, when a man atoned for illegally using a $US0.03 stamp on three separate occasions. Other donations have risen into the thousands, often on behalf of an estate.
With 100 funds to manage in total, Hanna and Walcutt aren’t spending the majority of their time on the Conscience Fund. It’s more of a background operation that gets a fun bit of attention now and then. Donors often include a note expressing their grief for having stolen in the first place.
Though technically necessary in order for managers to sort the money into the correct fund, the note has become a kind of tradition.
“This check for $US1,300 is to make restitution of tools, leave days and other things I stole while I was in the Navy from ’62 to ’67,'” one note said, according to The Times.
Another read: ”Please accept this money enclosed for two postal stamps I reused.'”