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Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Dónde está Joaquin?
NOW YOU SEE ME

A Spanish official collected a paycheck but didn’t go to work for six years. Or was it 14?

By Aamna Mohdin

Joaquin Garcia is a Spanish civil servant who supervises a wastewater treatment plant. The engineer was in line for a long-service award in 2010, but there was a problem—he hadn’t been to the office for the past six years. (Or maybe 14, nobody was really sure.)

The award highlighted Garcia’s long, unnoticed absence from his €37,000 ($41,000) a year a job. The water company thought he was the responsibility of the local council, and vice-versa.

Garcia, now 69 and retired, was fined €27,000 ($30,000) by a judge this week, the most his former employer could legally reclaim. Garcia’s lawyers say he has gone into hiding as a result of the media attention, and denies any wrongdoing.

Spanish media have dubbed Garcia “el funcionario fantasma” (the phantom official). His tale seem unbelievable, but he is only the latest in a line of civil servants to achieve the dream of office drones everywhere—getting paid for a steady job you never actually have to go to.

In Virginia, a civil servant in Norfolk was able to keep up for the ruse for an impressive 12 years. The employee, who was never identified, remained on the government payroll, despite not reporting for work for so long.

But that stint of absenteeism is quaint compared with the news that occasionally comes from India. A teacher in Madhya Pradesh took off for maternity leave never to return, despite remaining remaining on the employee rolls for 23 years before somebody took action in 2014. She was soon pipped by a government engineer, who went on leave in 1990 but wasn’t sacked until last year, making for an impressive streak of 24 years.

What makes these stories travel so widely is what they say about the state of public administration, which people love to complain about. That some workers fall through the cracks so spectacularly confirms people’s criticisms about the quality of some government departments.

But it’s also the dash of whimsy that accompanies stories like the recent one from Spain that captures the imagination. There are many “ghost jobs” that stem from premeditated fraud and corruption by officials, and those aren’t as fun to read about. Iraq’s new government in 2014 had to deal with 50,000 so-called “ghost soldiers” on the payroll. Despite its supposed strength, a hollowed-out fighting force in Mosul was easily defeated by ISIL, which still occupies the city today.