Fight against corruption continues

At least 42 guilty in ongoing government corruption probe in Lake County
2007-09-30T00:00:00Z Fight against corruption continuesJOE CARLSON
September 30, 2007 12:00 am  • 

What a difference five years makes.

In 2002, Will Smith Jr. was working as an influential member of the Lake County Council, Dozier Allen was preparing to leave the Calumet Township trustee's office after 32 years, and Robert Cantrell was running the East Chicago Republican Party in cooperation with Democratic Mayor Robert Pastrick.

Gary Urban Enterprise Association Director Jojuana Meeks was buying buildings hand-picked for her by county tax collector Roosevelt Powell. Gary businessman Jewell Harris Sr. was enjoying his close relationship with Gary City Hall, and Peggy Holinga Katona was busy running the county treasurer's office that her family had controlled for decades.

Five years later, every one of those officials -- save former Mayor Pastrick -- has since been touched by the U.S. attorney's ongoing Operation Restore Public Integrity investigation. Pastrick is the target of a racketeering lawsuit from Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter.

The effort to fight Lake County corruption has extended into Porter County, where the U.S. attorney's office brought charges of bribery against Pastrick's youngest son, Kevin Pastrick.

In May 2004, Kevin Pastrick was convicted of bribing a carpenter's union official in a scandal over Coffee Creek, a residential and commercial development south of Chesterton.

The impact the federal corruption probe has made on political corruption is vast:

-- Smith was convicted Thursday of filing a false tax return and faces a lifetime ban from holding public office.

-- Allen was indicted last week for allegedly skimming from a township contract.

-- Cantrell was indicted last year on tax evasion charges.

-- Meeks pleaded guilty in March to embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the GUEA.

-- Powell was convicted of conspiracy and tax fraud Thursday.

-- Harris is scheduled for trial Dec. 3 on allegations he double-billed the city of Gary.

-- Katona revealed last week an ongoing federal investigation is targeting her.

In all, Operation Restore Public Integrity has secured convictions or guilty pleas of at least 42 public officials and/or municipal contractors, mainly in East Chicago, Gary and Lake County government. A similar initiative, Operation Lights Out, brought nearly 20 convictions in 10 years during the 1980s and '90s.

Attorney General Carter, whose office also has prosecuted several dozen cases of Lake County vote fraud since 2002, said the work of fighting Lake County's infamous public corruption is ongoing, despite all the recent activity.

"Yes, progress is being made," Carter said. "But when you have a history of decades of corruption, I don't think it's going to go away in five years. My hope is that the next generation of political leaders will say, 'We can achieve things in public offices, but we're not going to do things in the way of the past.'"

The targets of corruption investigations have always questioned the motives of their accusers.

Cantrell once said the press needs corruption to exist to sell more papers. Critics say Carter is going after Robert Pastrick to get some ink ahead of his 2008 re-election campaign. North county Democrats long grumbled about Republican Joseph Van Bokkelen's selection of targets while he was the region's federal prosecutor.

Acting U.S. Attorney David Capp, who took over the office in July, said corrupt Democrats should not expect a pass just because he has voted as a Democrat in the past.

"I don't consider myself ever affiliated with a political party," Capp said. "I've been a career prosecutor over here for 22 years. I could care less about the politics of these investigations. If the evidence is there, we're going to pursue these cases wherever they lead."

One message remains clear from state and federal prosecutors: The probe and ensuing indictments for public corruption in the region are not over.

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