CROWN POINT | An advocate for ethics training for local government employees said it will take more than the downfall of former Lake County Clerk Thomas Philpot to scare other potentially corrupt public officials straight.
"We have to step back earlier and establish a culture that doesn't approve of this type of behavior and prevents it," Calvin Bellamy, president of the Lake County Shared Ethics Advisory Commission, said Friday.
Philpot, 55, of Highland, will begin an 18-month prison term April 3 for stealing thousands of dollars in public child support incentive funds he controlled four years ago.
The debate about the deterrence factor began uncomfortably for Philpot on Thursday in U.S. District Senior Judge James Moody's courtroom at sentencing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson asked the judge to give Philpot a heavier prison term than the 12 months to 18 months federal guidelines suggested was the average sentence for such a criminal.
"Given the history of corrupt government in Lake County, he needs a sentence outside the guidelines. His crime destroys the public's confidence when it goes to the polls," Benson said.
Philpot issued a brief apology to his family, friends and the public for his "carelessness."
Benson said Philpot himself should have been deterred by the 2009 conviction of former Calumet Township Trustee Dozier Allen in Gary for a similar theft of public funds. Instead, Philpot was illegally pocketing money meant to help collect child support for impoverished children, at the same time headlines of Allen's conviction were in local newspapers.
The judge said he has been crafting sentences for corrupt politicians for years — without much effect.
More than two dozen Lake County elected officials have been convicted of public corruption since 1985, most of them in the past 12 years.
Bellamy said, "I don't know for a small-time theft like Philpot's if a longer sentence would have been significant, but the fact he is now a convicted felon and can't run for office and he did get jail time, not probation, that is as far as you can carry that."
Bellamy said he has been trying to convince local elected officials to employ the ethics commission, which started about a decade ago, to offer ethics training to all municipal employees.
"I'm finding some closed minds and resistance to participating in this work," Bellamy said. "At New Chicago the other night, I made a presentation before the Town Council, and the council president said they already had decided they didn't need to join because they wouldn't hire people who didn't have common sense.
"I think ethics is a learned skill. It needs to be taught over and over again like safety training. If you don't have ethical decision-making as part of the culture, then the 'I'll get mine when I get in' attitude, which is an example of Philpot's thinking, will prevail," Bellamy said.