Politicians debate impact of FBI raid

2014-03-28T18:30:00Z 2014-03-30T16:32:15Z Politicians debate impact of FBI raidBill Dolan and Marc Chase The Times nwitimes.com
March 28, 2014 6:30 pm  • 

GARY | Politicians love attention -- but not the kind Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin received Thursday from federal and state investigators.

One day after the FBI, IRS and state police combed through Elgin's offices and walked out with boxes of evidence and a desktop computer, the township trustee's office reopened Friday.

But political observers question whether Elgin's re-election campaign is back in business.

"Mary Elgin was already facing a tough primary race in May. It just got a lot harder," said Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., also the Lake County Democratic party chairman.

McDermott isn't calling on Elgin to close down her campaign for the good of the Democratic Party, saying he trusts the voters to make the right decision.

"She’ll be on the ballot in a month. Convincing the taxpayers everything is OK -- in light of all this -- is not going to be easy," McDermott said.

The U.S. attorney's office and the FBI have declined comment on what allegations prompted a raid on one of the largest township trustee operations in the state.

But the raid reflects poorly on her administration, Lake County Republican Party Chairman Dan Dernulc said.

"As elected leaders, we all have to be over and above in terms of ethics, morality and honesty in doing the business of our constituents," he said. “I’ve come to learn over the years that when something like this happens -- if the feds are looking at somebody like this -- it’s not just because they’ve received a rumor or two. It’s because they believe they have substantial evidence.

“Voters have to ask themselves some serious questions here,” Dernulc said.

Those questions come 11 days before early voting begins and less than five weeks before the May 6 Democratic primary race between Elgin and her challenger, Gary City Councilwoman Kimberly K. Robinson.

Robinson said Friday she doesn't expect the raid to benefit her and isn't deriving pleasure from her Elgin's misfortune.

"I don't wish this on anyone. People have been coming up to me and asking whether I called them (federal agents). No. How can I call the FBI?" Robinson said.

"It's unfortunate that it happened, because it's a black eye for our community. Somewhere in the middle of this, the clients the office services are left to figure out what is going on."

Elgin didn't return calls seeking comment. Ragen Hatcher, an attorney for the township, said Thursday that Elgin was cooperating with federal investigators.

Elgin's office administered more than $7.6 million in housing, health care and other types of assistance last year to more than 12,300 individuals, primarily from Gary.

This is the third election cycle in which a county Democrat has run for public office under a cloud of suspicion.

State and federal investigators raided the offices of former county Surveyor George Van Til in June 2012. He won re-election that year but was indicted and pleaded guilty in 2013 to public corruption charges.

Carol Ann Seaton, the 2010 Democratic nominee for county assessor who was dogged by allegations she lived out of state and in a home with an illegal tax break, lost to Republican Hank Adams in 2010.

Seaton has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failing to register three cars with the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles as a state resident. Her trial is set to begin in the fall. She is running this spring as a candidate for Lake County Council.

Bob Ramsey, supervisory agent for the FBI in Merrillville, said the public shouldn't read anything into the timing of their visit to Elgin's office Thursday.

He said the FBI executed a U.S. District Court search warrant after it was processed by the U.S. attorney's office and a federal magistrate judge.

"We are just pushing the investigation forward. The timing of the election is just a sideshow for us," he said.

The Hammond-based U.S. attorney's office declined to comment.

Griffith Town Council President Rick Ryfa, a critic of of Elgin's administration and its cost to his community's taxpayers and an advocate for Griffith to secede from the township, said he is willing to let the federal investigation and the upcoming election take its course.

"We obviously have had a number of issues with the Calumet Township trustee and how the office is administered," Ryfa said. "But ultimately it’s up to the people to decide what they want to do politically through the vote. Until or unless she is proven guilty of something, the law allows her to remain in the race.”

On whether she should step down, Ryfa said, "She needs to answer that question for herself."

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