CROWN POINT | The Lake County Government Center could be an uneasy workplace for those employees traveling to U.S. District Court in Hammond in the coming days to give evidence about their fellow employees in open court or in the grand jury room.
Employees of Surveyor George Van Til's office reportedly are to be quizzed Wednesday in the U.S. Attorney's office by a federal grand jury, two months after FBI agents raided their office. Robert Ramsey, FBI supervisory senior resident agent, said that investigation is ongoing, but declined further comment on who is being targeted.
Lake County Attorney John Dull said earlier this week he spoke with at least two deputy surveyors concerned about it.
A number of Lake County government employees, including some eminent officials, have received subpoenas -- some delivered to their homes, to testify in a federal trial, beginning Aug. 20, for Lake County Coroner Thomas Philpot.
They will be examined and cross-examined about whether Philpot illegally enriched himself from federal grants he controlled between 2004 and 2009 when he was serving as county clerk. Philpot is pleading not guilty.
Once off the hot seat, they will be expected to return to their normal job routines, not thinking about the adverse consequences their testimony will generate down the road.
"Having to testify is very stressful," Jim Stiff said last week. Stiff is president of Trial Analysts, a Texas-based specialist on witness preparation. "Even moreso recently, because people are so focused on their jobs and not doing anything that is going to put them in a bad situation at work."
Tom Dabertin, county government's human resources specialist, said there are laws and government personnel rules that protect them.
"First and foremost, they would be protected by federal witness-tampering laws. If you take any action to interfere with the testimony of someone before a federal grand jury ... that is a pretty serious crime.
"Our employee handbook states employees are to be able to work in an environment without coercion or harassment for cooperating with any investigation," Dabertin said.
Stiff said those measures only come into play after an employee has been penalized and may offer little peace of mind to a future witness.
"Even if they aren't worried about being fired, there is always the possibility they will get a more difficult job assignment, or not get the hours they were enjoying or may not get a promotion a year and a half down the road," Stiff said.
Employees who believe they have been subject to discrimination also can sue, as many have done in East Chicago where changes of city administration over the years have resulted in numerous claims of political retaliation.
"Taking reprisals against a witness, even economic reprisal, is as illegal as hell," said Highland attorney Anthony DeBonis Jr., who has represented many of them.
His best advice for an official contemplating such retribution is, "keep his mouth shut, his hands in his pockets and hope for the best."